Northern Ireland

Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn says he will ‘repeal and replace’ Legacy Act

Tells Irish News controversial legislation ends all civil cases and inquests

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Hilary Benn said closer ties with the EU are possible
Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn says he will "repeal and replace" Legacy Act (Liam McBurney/PA)

The man expected to become the north’s next Secretary of State has said he will “repeal and replace” the British government’s controversial Legacy Act, which comes into force today.

Labour shadow secretary Hilary Benn was speaking as existing mechanisms for investigating Troubles-linked incidents are scrapped today.

All civil cases and inquests that are not at their findings stage have now been halted as part of the contentious Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy & Reconciliation) Bill.

From Wednesday legacy cases will be transferred to the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).

Many victims and relatives of those who died during the Troubles are strongly opposed to the British government created body, believing it is designed to protect state participants from accountability.

In recent weeks several high-profile inquests, the majority linked to allegations of collusion, have been halted by coroners amid concerns over a failure by state bodies to disclose necessary information.

Legacy inquests are generally the subject of applications by state organisations for redactions to sensitive documents under Public Interest Immunity (PII).

PII certificates are used by state agencies to withhold information they do not want members of the public to see.

The failure of state bodies to allow key disclosure has directly forced the collapse of several inquests in recent weeks.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris has backed the new legacy arrangements
Chris Heaton-Harris (Lucy North/PA)

In addition, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has launched legal action linked to several inquests where a coroner either did provide or proposed providing a gist, or limited summary, of sensitive information to relatives of the dead.

The man expected to replace Mr Heaton-Harris after the next Westminster election has now repeated a pledge by Labour, which opposed the Legacy Bill during its passage through Westminster, to scrap the disputed act.

Both he and his party leader Keir Starmer have previously committed to getting rid of the legacy act.

Speaking to the Irish News, Mr Benn again reaffirmed his party’s view of the act saying “we will repeal and replace it”.

“The legacy act doesn’t commend the confidence of any party, any victim’s group that I have met in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“And I think (today) will be a very painful day for many families who are seeking answers, some of them after many years of trying to (find out) what happened to their loved ones.

“And, it feels like a door is being slammed in their face and that’s why Keir Starmer said over a year and a bit ago, when he was at Queen’s University, Belfast, that we were committed to repeal it.”

Legal challenges have been launched against the legislation, including one by the Irish government at the European Court of Human Rights.

Last month a High Court judge in Belfast ruled that conditional immunity and plans to close down some civil actions are unlawful.

The British government, through the Northern Ireland Office, has since launched an appeal.

Protests take place  , As Families attended  the judgment hearing on the lawfulness of the legacy act At Belfast High Court on Wednesday. 
Mr Justice Colton declared that parts of the legislation aimed at dealing with the consequences of the conflict in Northern Ireland breach the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Belfast case was brought by Martina Dillon, John McEvoy, Lynda McManus and Brigid Hughes.
Campaigners are opposed to the Legacy Act

Mr Benn set out some of the reforms he plans to implement.

“I have said, first of all, we would remove the immunity provisions in the act,” he said.

“Now, they of course have already been struck down in the Belfast High Court because they were declared incompatible with the European convention.

“But, they were also struck down on the basis of the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework.

“So, they currently don’t operate and what happens next is going to depend on what happens in the appeal hearing, which I think is due to take place in June in Belfast.”

Significantly, the Leeds Central MP said he will also restore civil cases and inquests.

“Secondly, we have said that we will restore civil cases, how can you have a part of the United Kingdom where British citizens cannot bring a civil action related to what has happened to their loved ones,” he said.

“And, thirdly, we would restore inquests, and that would allow inquests that have stopped to resume if that’s what people want, although we don’t know how long the time will be between (today) and when the election is, when legislation can be passed and so on.”

Mr Benn said he hoped to return to the principles of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which included provisions to establish a range of mechanisms for the dealing with the past but was never implemented.

“I have said we want to go back to the principles of the Stormont House Agreement, which didn’t have universal support but had a fairly broad level of support and that’s in marked contrast to the Legacy Act, that has no support at all in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“And everyone I have spoken to says that you need to have a body capable of conducting investigations, you need to have a body capable of recovering information.”

Mr Benn said the success of the ICRIR will depend on how it is received by relatives of the dead.

“The Stormont House approach and the bill that appeared subsequent to that envisaged two separate institutions doing that, one for information recovery, one for continuing investigation,” he said.

“The two are combined in effect in the independent commission, ICRIR, and clearly how ICRIR does once it starts its work….will depend on what families think of the effectiveness of the process.

“And, whatever system we have in the future has got to have a genuinely independent body which is capable of investigating, revealing information and providing an account to families.

“Because everyone agrees you need such a body.

“Now, what form it takes and what reforms to ICRIR may be required will be the subject of consultation, and will of course be informed about the way in which ICRIR goes about its work.”

Sir Declan Morgan, Chief Commissioner of the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery
Sir Declan Morgan, ICRIR Chief Commissioner (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Labour MP said he has met twice with ICRIR Chief Commissioner, Sir Declan Morgan, who is a former Lord Chief Justice.

Asked if he believes he could work with him on the other side of an election Mr Benn said: “”Well, he has a very considerable reputation and everyone I have met says that they hold him in high regard, he’s got a job of work to do, and he is getting on with it.

“But, I have said publicly the effectiveness of the commission, because there are, obviously people who look at it because of its origins with suspicion, because they dislike the motivation that is behind the Legacy Act.

Mr Benn added that the “effectiveness of the commission in the end will be judged by families who refer cases to them”.

“Does it provide for them what the existing system has failed to do thus far? he asked.

“And, since everyone I have spoken to agrees that there needs to be a body capable of undertaking reviews and continuing investigations - it is the effectiveness of those arrangements that we should adjudge them on, and the families are going to be the ultimate arbiters.

“Because this whole process is about trying to give them something that they have not got over many years.”

Mr Benn said he is in favour of the ICRIR holding public hearings.

“I think public hearings under the ICRIR system is something that I would welcome and could form part of a package of reform,” he said.

“But, in the end it is going to be for families to decide what route they want to take and under the proposals that I have put there would continue to be civil cases and inquest and a reformed review and investigation body.

“And, people will see what is the effectiveness of all of these and decide ‘what do I think is the most likely route to get for me and the rest of the family the information we have been looking for, for a very longtime about what exactly happened’.”

The shadow secretary said restructuring the legacy framework will be a “priority” for him after any forthcoming election.

“It certainly is a priority for me,” he said.

“Now, some things are more straight forward, like restoring inquests and civil cases and ending the immunity provisions.

“Others, getting a structure that will be able to command support in ways, for example ICRIR might be reformed, that will take time.

“I will want to talk to everyone, to victim’s groups, to the political parties, to the government of Ireland of course, because there is the interstate action which they have launched.

“And we will do that as expeditiously as we can, but it’s important to take the right time to get this right because we want this to endure and to (at) last to give families what they’ve been looking for.”

In recent weeks coroners in several collapsed inquests have written to, or say they intend to write, to the Secretary of State requesting a public inquiry.

Asked if he would be inclined towards the public inquiry route as secretary of state, Mr Benn said: “Well, I haven’t obviously looked at the detail of the cases so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to give a commitment in respect of any of those.

“And a number of those cases are currently the subject of legal proceedings because the Secretary of State has chosen to intervene on grounds of national security, and I think while those legal processes are being seen through it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on that either.”

Mr Benn added it was “worth pointing out” that a judge in a recent High Court challenge, Mr Justice Colton, was also ruling on , “is ICRIR in its current form capable of carrying out reviews and investigations that are in keeping with Articles Two and Three of the convention on human rights”.

“And, he said on the basis of what I have seen, the documents that ICRIR has published, I think that it is potentially capable of doing so, and he did not say it was not capable and then he added there will be, obviously, when they actually come to consider cases people will decide whether that is the case or not.

“But I think it may have come as a surprise to some people who expected that the court would say ‘no, ICRIR is not capable’ but that’s not what Mr Justice Colton said.”