Dark day for all victims as Legacy Act takes effect - The Irish News view

Labour commitment to ‘repeal and replace’ legislation provides shaft of light on day of shame for British government

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Hilary Benn has questioned whether the Government will be ‘helped or hindered’ by legal action taken in defence of controversial legacy legislation
Campaigners pictured outside Belfast's High Court (Brian Lawless/PA)

Families of Troubles victims have sadly become all too accustomed to having hopes for truth, justice or accountability frustrated by the actions or inactions of state agencies, politicians, paramilitaries and all those with a motive to cast a veil of secrecy over the tragic events of our years of conflict.

They will also have been acutely aware that today marks a significant further stage in British government attempts to close down avenues to establish the full facts surrounding their loved ones’ deaths and in many cases the involvement of state agents.

Nevertheless, the guillotine that has now been applied to all inquests and civil cases that have not made findings is a brutal demonstration of the reality of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act.

This iniquitous legislation, which also prevents new criminal investigations and provides an effective amnesty for those cooperating with an information recovery body, was forced through parliament against the wishes of all political parties in Northern Ireland and the overwhelming majority of victims.

Purporting to offer “greater information, accountability and acknowledgement”, it is in reality motivated by a shameless political desire to protect army veterans from prosecution for offences dating back up to five decades, no matter how egregious the circumstances.

Not content with curtailing the basic right to an inquest – a mechanism which been successful in providing information to some families and, most prominently in the case of the Ballymurphy massacre, bringing soldiers before court and clearing victims’ names – the Secretary of State has taken legal action to block the limited disclosure of sensitive information by coroners.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris speaking to the media at the Northern Ireland Assembly .
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

There is strong suspicion that in other cases, state agencies have introduced delay after delay to run down the clock to ensure inquests cannot conclude before the cut-off.

From today all legacy cases are being transferred to a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which does not command the support of many victims’ families.

However, on what can only be regarded as a dark day for the justice system, a few shafts of light do remain.

Ballymurphy inquest
The findings in the Ballymurphy inquest were delivered in 2021

The Legacy Act is subject to concerted legal challenge, both domestically and in a case taken by the Irish government at the European Court of Human Rights.

The Labour Party has also stated its intention to “repeal and replace” the legislation in the likely event it assumes power at Downing Street within the next 12 months.

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Hilary Benn
Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn (Maja Smiejkowska/PA)

Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn has spoken of returning to the principles of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which provided for a range of new legacy mechanisms but was never implemented.

The hope now for victims and all those with an interest in truth, justice and reconciliation is that an election comes as soon as possible.