The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords last week.
In a generally high-quality debate, perhaps the most illuminating intervention came from the former Policing Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, who gave a stark assessment of the bill’s implications.
The Bill does four very important things, which are being articulated here. It terminates existing criminal investigations into Troubles deaths, including the Kenova investigations, with which I am involved. It provides for review in limited circumstances, which may lead to prosecution but is very unlikely to. It terminates civil actions from 17 May this year, and there will be no Troubles inquests after May 2023… …The Bill also provides for conditional immunity for those involved in the Troubles, as we heard.
O’Loan went on to describe the situation being uncovered by the investigations under threat:
Our history is very complex. Somehow, a situation evolved in which the police, the Army and MI5, having successfully infiltrated terrorist organisations, lost their way. There grew a time when many of the agents of the state currently under investigation were allowed to carry on their involvement in terrorism to preserve them as agents. People died because of this, and it should not have happened. Even when they admitted their crimes to their handlers, they were just sent back on the street. As this emerged, as people began to realise that their loved ones had been murdered by people such as informants—agents of the state who had not been dealt with—there grew an ongoing sense of betrayal in both communities.
One source of this situation was the policy reflected in the 1980 Walker Report, which called for Special Branch officers to be consulted before agents could be arrested. The report’s author, Patrick Walker, was then a senior MI5 officer on the Northern Ireland Office Liaison Staff, and later became Director General of the Security Service.
The families opposing the Legacy Bill include those affected by the activities of state agents. The Telegraph reported this week:
In a letter sent to Rishi Sunak today, before the Bill’s second reading in the Lords this afternoon, the families of Majella O’Hare, 12, and Army Pte Tony Harrison, 21, have warned that the proposal “protects the perpetrators of serious crimes rather than those who suffered at their hands”.
In August 1976, Majella O’Hare was on her way to church in the Armagh village of Whitecross when she was killed by two shots fired from a British soldier’s gun.
Pte Harrison was murdered by the IRA while off duty and visiting his fiancée in Belfast. A double-agent working for the IRA and the RUC admitted involvement.
I believe that the O’Hare and Harrison families first met at the Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma event in West London last May.
The Harrison case illustrates that the Legacy Bill has significant implications for victims of the Troubles in Britain as well as in Ireland, implications which the Government has so far largely ignored.