Northern Ireland news

Troubles reconciliation will release details uncomfortable for everybody, Brandon Lewis says

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Richard Wheeler, Ben Hatton and David Lynch, PA Political Staff

The UK Government expects “uncomfortable” information to be revealed via its Troubles reconciliation plans, as it urged the Republic of Ireland to also bring forward legislation amid fears of a “one-sided” process.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he accepts the UK’s proposed laws will remain “challenging for some” and they are about trying to find a way to obtain information and provide accountability “more quickly and more comprehensively than the current system”.

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.

Opening the second reading debate on the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, Mr Lewis told MPs: “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 between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

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 Irish government committed last year to “bringing forward the legislation potentially in Ireland about information recovery to deal with that very point”.

He added: “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.”

Mr Lewis also stressed people will be required to acknowledge their involvement in serious Troubles-related incidents and reveal what they know in order to gain immunity.

He explained: “These provisions will also apply to individuals who have previously been provided with so-called on-the-run letters, letters of comfort.

“These letters when issued confirmed whether or not an individual was wanted by the police based on evidence held at that time.

“However, I want to be crystal clear that these letters have absolutely no legal standing and cannot be used to prevent prosecution under this new approach.”

For Labour, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle said the Government’s plans do not give enough support to victims and are far too lenient on those who committed crimes.

He 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.”

SNP spokesperson for Northern Ireland Richard Thomson said: “I remain unpersuaded that the goal of truth and reconciliation is going to be more likely to be achieved by this process, or that it justifies setting aside the norms of the rule of law and the fundamental rights of the individual to seek recourse through law in order to uphold their rights.”

Outlining his party’s opposition to the Bill in its current form, he said reconciliation cannot be “imposed”, and said: “What we are seeing before us today with this legislation as it stands is something which is being imposed to the great distress of many and I believe that that is unnecessary.”

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