Northern Ireland news

Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis must meet families of Troubles victims – campaigner

Victims campaigner Raymond McCord. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Catherine Wylie and Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA

The British prime minister and secretary of state must meet families of Troubles victims, according to a campaigner opposed to the British gvernment’s introduction of controversial legacy legislation.

Raymond McCord, whose son was killed by loyalists, accused Boris Johnson of hypocrisy in his treatment of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.

The British government said the Bill aims to provide better outcomes for victims, survivors and veterans.

But Mr McCord, of The Truth And Justice Movement, said the only people who benefit from the proposed legacy legislation are the murderers and terrorists.

“The losers all round are the victims and their families,” he told the PA news agency.

Mr McCord is in London for the debating of the legislation.

He said Mr Johnson, Brandon Lewis and many other MPs treat families of Troubles victims as “daft Paddies”.

Mr McCord said: “If they were at school and they were doing an O-level for Northern Ireland they would all fail. It’s as simple as that.

“And for people who went to university, they’re very uneducated people relating to part of the UK.”

He added: “They treat us as if we’re all daft Paddies. We’re anything but it.”

Mr McCord said he was referring to Mr Johnson and Mr Lewis, as well as “many other MPs”.

He added: “They really need to sit down and listen to victims’ stories, victims telling their stories. Not being told by the police, not being told by an MP for Northern Ireland or an MLA.”

Introduced to the House of Commons last week, the draft laws offer immunity to those deemed to have co-operated with an information retrieval body.

The Bill would also stop future inquests and civil actions related to the Troubles, although it does not fully close the door to criminal prosecutions.

The proposed legislation has been widely criticised by Northern Ireland’s political parties, as well as victims’ campaigners, the Ddublin government and Amnesty International.

The Bill is going through second reading today, in which the main principles of the Bill are debated by MPs. Three stages are due after that before the Bill can be voted into law.

Mr McCord said Mr Johnson speaks about the Northern Ireland Protocol having to change because there is not consent from both communities.

He suggests this is hypocritical due to the lack of consent over the legacy legislation.

“Well, relating to these proposals there’s consent from no community, from no politician, no victims’ group, no individual victim,” he said.

“What I’m saying is it’s hypocrisy in relation to Northern Ireland,” he said, adding: “He’s making the protocol a bigger issue than the deaths of thousands of innocent children, women and men.”

Asked what he would say to Mr Johnson, Mr McCord said: “I’d tell him to resign because he’s not fit to serve his office because of what he’s doing to victims.”

Meanwhile, a delegation from the Relatives For Justice group gathered in Parliament Square at 1pm, and began a walk to 10 Downing Street to deliver a letter setting out opposition to the Bill at 2.30pm.

Mark Thompson, chief executive of Relatives For Justice, said the Bill “undermines fundamental human rights enshrined within the Good Friday Agreement and the very institutions that flow from the agreement”.

“Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis are usurping the powers of the North’s attorney general, the Lord Chief Justice and judiciary in an unprecedented political overreach by a western government into the criminal justice system,” he said.

“They are locking down the courts and administration of justice.”

Around 100 protestors gathered outside the Northern Ireland Office headquarters in the centre of Belfast in opposition to the legislation.

The protest featured a number of relatives from families who lost members during the Troubles.

John Teggart, whose father was killed by soldiers in Ballymurphy in Belfast in 1971, attended the protest.

He said: "We are here because we are demanding the bill of shame by the British government to be taken off the table.

"Victims are angry because the latest proposals by the British government is an amnesty for British soldiers.

"They are covering the state's involvement in the conflict.

"This affects all victims, right across the board. They all have the same rights.

"There are no victims supporting this bill at all."

Many of the protestors carried photographs of their lost relatives and placards opposing any amnesty for Troubles crimes.

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle this afternoon said he had not selected Labour's reasoned amendment which had sought to block the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.

Labour's proposal declined to give the Bill a second reading in part due to a lack of consultation.

It means MPs will vote simply on whether or not to grant the Bill a second reading once the debate concludes.

Marian Walsh, whose son Damien was murdered by loyalists in 1993, said those responsible for Troubles crimes should be prosecuted.

She said: "I believe anyone who has done anything wrong in this conflict should be brought to court.

"They shouldn't be given an amnesty.

"You can't give people immunity for the terrible things which happened here.

"So many lives lost and so many people badly injured, you just can't push that under the carpet and say it didn't happen."

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said "this legislation does mark a definitive shift in focus to put information recovery for families at its core".

Opening the second reading debate for the  Bill in the Commons, Mr Lewis said: "We were clear when we published our command paper last July that we would listen to feedback with an open mind.

"Over the last 10 months, my team and I have done just that, hearing the pain and perspectives of people from all view points and communities.

"During those conversations we have repeatedly had to confront what is a very painful reality, that with more than two-thirds of Troubles-related cases now 40 years old, the prospect of successful prosecutions is vanishingly small.

"And that's why this legislation does mark a definitive shift in focus to put information recovery for families at its core, in recognition of that."

Mr Lewis said: "Looking around today I see many wonderful examples of a transformed, inclusive, peaceful Northern Ireland. Yet despite this exceptional progress, the Troubles do continue to cast a shadow over all those impacted and wider society."

He said successive government have not been able to resolve the legacy of the Troubles owing to its sensitivity and complexity, adding: "But what we cannot do, is as a result of that, stand by and do nothing. We cannot let the status quo continue. To do that would be a dereliction of our duty."

He added: "Every year that goes by the opportunity to obtain answers for those who lost loved ones in the Troubles diminishes further. We have a responsibility to ensure that children can grow up together, be educated together, and to understand all aspects of our shared past."

He went on: "The current system is broken. It is delivering neither justice nor information to the vast majority of families. The lengthy, adversarial and complex legal processes do not offer the most effective route to information recovery. Nor do they foster understanding, acknowledgement or reconciliation.

"Faith in the criminal justice model to deal with legacy cases has been undermined," he said adding, "we need to be honest about the limitations of focusing on criminal justice as a means to secure truth and accountability".

"It is arguably cruel to perpetuate false hope whilst presenting no viable alternative to deliver the information that so many families and their survivors seek," he added.

Mr Lewis said he accepted the legislation will remain "challenging for some", adding in the Commons: "I want to say directly to all those individuals and their families - I respect, we as a government respect, the personal tragedies that drive their determination to seek the truth and accountability for the losses they have suffered. I share that determination.

"The government is not and would never ask them to forget what they have been through in the name of reconciliation. This is about finding a way to obtain information and provide accountability more quickly and more comprehensively than the current system, and in a way that does aid reconciliation both for them and the whole of Northern Ireland."

Conservative former Northern Ireland minister Andrew Murrison earlier said: "I applaud the intent of this Bill and I want to see the end of the harassing of our veterans who served this country well in uniform."

He asked Mr Lewis to detail the accountability in granting immunity to people who have "murdered or seriously maimed other people", with the minister stating in his reply: "It is right we have accountability but ... we can't have that kind of justice in the sense of the punishment fitting the crime following what was done in the Sentencing Act."

Conservative former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: "Isn't one of the problems we've got here is that those who can be pursued through the courts tend to be those who are working on behalf of the government as there are records well kept and of huge detail; those who were committing terrorist acts - on whichever side of the community they were - there's very little in the way of records."

Mr Lewis has said that truth will bring accountability and government must take difficult decisions in the absence of consensus.

In an emotional intervention, DUP MP Jim Shannon (Strangford) appeared to hold back tears as he described the "murders" of his cousin and others at the hands of the IRA, and the subsequent lack of accountability.

He described his "angst and agony" for his constituents, and said: "I want to have the justice that they have been denied for over 50 years." He asked what the Secretary of State is doing to ensure that happens.

Mr Lewis said he had touched on "the failure of the current system to be able to bring that accountability, that understanding and that truth for people", adding: "That's exactly what we want to achieve with this legislation, is an outcome that means that people get the truth, and with that does come accountability."

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) said: "Since the days of John Major and Tony Blair, the only way we have been able to make progress is to get everybody together and build the consensus, and then bring the legislation. It is surely apparent already from today's debate that he doesn't have that consensus."

Mr Lewis described it as a "difficult and painful area, an area that there hasn't been consensus", and said after listening to all parties: "It is sometimes for us in government to take those difficult decisions, to find a way forward that can deliver a better outcome for people as we move forward in the future."

Mr Lewis encouraged the Irish government to bring forward its own legislation to aid the reconciliation process as he acknowledged "uncomfortable" information for the UK Government is expected to be released via its process.

Mr Lewis said the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery will be supported by a "legal requirement for full disclosure from UK Government departments, security services and arms-length bodies" to ensure it can gather the evidence it needs.

He later said: "We, as a government, do accept on that point that as part of this process there will be information released into the public domain that may well be uncomfortable for everybody. It's important that we as a government acknowledge our shortcomings, as we have done previously, during that immensely challenging period."

Mr Lewis said it is also important "others do the same", with DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) intervening to say that hundreds of people were murdered along the border.

He added: "What assistance, if any, has been given by the Republic of Ireland or will any evidence that is gathered there never be made available to this situation in Northern Ireland, and will we therefore have a blindsided, one-sided process that doesn't allow for the Republic of Ireland to be held to account for its covering over and hiding of those terrorists for decades?"

Mr Lewis said the Dublin government committed last year to "bringing forward the legislation potentially in Ireland about information recovery to deal with that very point", adding: "I haven't seen that yet, I do hope we will see something on that from the Irish government soon to ensure we are working in both jurisdictions to ensure the people have as much access to that information as possible."

The Labour Party's Shadow Secretary of State Peter Kyle said: "The government argue that due to the passage of time we have a duty to empower this body (the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery) to grant immunity to killers in return for information they have about their actions.

"There is still the possibility of prosecution for those who fail to provide an account of their actions to the commission, but the bar for immunity is set so low it is hard to see prosecutions happening in practice."

Mr Kyle raised the case of Raymond McCord Junior, murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in 1997, telling MPs: "Across the House today we must consider if this Bill offers Raymond's family as many new rights as it does for his murderer. I don't believe it does.

"Under this legislation, Raymond's murderer has the right to come forward and should he tell a basic but realistic account of his crimes he must be given immunity from prosecution. An immunity that stands even if in future it is proved false."

He added: "These are the rights given to Raymond's murderer, yet nothing in the Bill says that the independent commission must listen to victims, communicate with the victims, or take measures to protect their dignity and health. These seem pretty basic rights to me and even that low threshold is not met."

Natasha Butler, the grand-daughter of Paddy Butler who was killed by British soldiers in Springhill in west Belfast in 1972, said all victims were united against the "bill of shame".

A new inquest into the death of Mr Butler and four others killed in the Springhill shootings is due to get under way next year.

His grand-daughter told the protest outside the NIO in Belfast that the tabled legislation would "drive a horse and cart" through the human rights of victims.

Ms Butler said the planned inquest had offered families hope of "truth and accountability".

"Now we see that cruelly and painfully taken away from us by the British government's legacy bill," she said.

"This constitutes a breach of trust and complete disregard to all victims and all families stood here today.

"It has destroyed our hope of establishing the truth surrounding our loved ones' murders."

Mark Kelly, whose 12-year-old sister Carol Ann was killed by the British Army in 1981, said the Bill would “deny all families who had loved ones killed truth, justice and accountability, irrelevant of who the perpetrators were”.

“It will close down investigations, inquests, police ombudsman inquiries and civil cases,” he said.

“These investigative processes are working perfectly well, and to good effect, on behalf of families save for interference by the British government.

“That is precisely why the British government has unilaterally tabled this amnesty Bill despite being fully aware of universal opposition to their amnesty plans. There is no support for this Bill whatsoever.

“The Irish government, all the political parties here and the opposition parties in Britain oppose this Bill – but most importantly, victims from across the community oppose the Bill.”

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