Northern Ireland Troubles: Government ministers in stand-off with Lords over Troubles legacy immunity proposals

The House of Lords has maintained its stand-off with the Government over plans to address the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (Photo: Sung Kuk Kim)
The House of Lords has maintained its stand-off with the Government over plans to address the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (Photo: Sung Kuk Kim)

Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Murphy of Torfaen called on the Government to think again about its plans to offer immunity to those who committed crimes during the Troubles.

He proposed a change to the Bill setting out conditions for legal immunity as part of reconciliation efforts, including consent from the families of victims.

Peers supported his amendment to the Bill 201 to 190, majority 11.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill aims to set up an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), so the families of victims can find out what happened to their relatives during the nearly 30-year conflict.

As part of this, a limited form of immunity would be offered to those who committed crimes throughout the Troubles to encourage them to come forward and share information.

The proposed legislation would also prevent future civil cases and inquests into Troubles offences.

The Bill has been widely condemned by political parties, civil society groups and victims’ representatives across Northern Ireland.

Lord Murphy, who served as Northern Ireland secretary in the Blair government, told peers: “My amendment wouldn’t solve the whole difficulty about a bad Bill, but it would mean that the involvement of victims’ families and the ability to impose conditions on immunity, including the right to revoke it altogether, would improve it.

“But we have heard that the minister isn’t going to accept that.”

He added: “The best solution is for this Bill to be put on hold, to be frozen in fact until such time that we have a properly governing executive and assembly back in Northern Ireland, and those are the people who should decide how these matters should be dealt with.”

Tory grandee Lord Cormack, who as an MP chaired the Northern Ireland Affairs select committee, also called for the Bill’s progress to be paused.

He said: “It is still an unacceptable Bill because it does not command any support outside the Government.”

He added: “I do think it is incumbent upon the Government, in view of the widespread concern, anxiety and deep unhappiness, for them to pause this Bill.

“This is not a Bill that should go onto the statute books in the far end of this (parliamentary) session.”

Northern Ireland minister Lord Caine said conditional immunity was “a poor mechanism to help the commission fulfil its functions”.

He told peers: “I remind the House the aim of the Bill is very simple and straightforward: to provide more information to more people in a shorter timeframe than is possible under current mechanisms, to establish the facts of what has happened to those families that wish for that, and to help society both remember the past and to look forward to a more genuinely shared future.

“I understand the aim of Lord Murphy’s amendment 44E is to give family members a role in whether immunity should be granted or not. In the Government’s considered view that would critically undermine the effectiveness of these provisions in their principal aim, the recovery of information for the families.”

Lord Caine went on: “If we are to pause this Bill or to refer it to the assembly, all we really are doing is setting ourselves up for a further significant delay in providing answers to victims and survivors of the Troubles.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris could be seen within the House of Lords chamber watching the debate, while Labour’s former shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle – reshuffled to the shadow cabinet science brief on Monday – observed from the gallery above.

Ahead of the debate, human rights organisation Amnesty International projected images of victims of the Troubles onto the Houses of Parliament, as part of a late plea to the Government to scrap the Bill.

Meanwhile, a lawyer who represents the families of a number of Troubles victims, Kevin Winters, has called on the Labour Party to publicly state that it will repeal the Government’s controversial legacy Bill if it comes to power.

He has also asked the Irish government to confirm it will lodge a legal challenge at the European Court of Human Rights when the proposed legislation becomes law.

A spokesperson for the Irish government said it has sought legal advice on the matter.