By Ben Hatton, PA Political Staff
A Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary has urged the UK government to “look again” at proposals that would prevent inquests and civil actions related to the Troubles.
Julian Smith warned of an “unfair cut-off point”, and highlighted that “consent is vital” when dealing with legacy issues.
Speaking in the UK House of Commons as MPs debated the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, Mr Smith also raised concerns over the Government’s plans for a new independent commission for information recovery.
He said: “I urge the Government to look at again at the independence and investigatory powers of this body to ensure that it can guarantee victims a full and thorough investigation of their case that is legally compliant.
“The shutting down of civil cases and of inquests, and the way it is done through this Bill, is also a source of much anger and worry.
“Civil actions have provided an effective mechanism for victims to obtain discovery and reparations.”
He added: “Today many victims feel that they have been hit by a double whammy with this Bill. Their route to justice cut off, and at the same time their route to the truth restricted.”
Mr Smith also said he acknowledged the inquest system has used significant resources “often without conclusions”, but added: “I urge the Government to also look at this. There must be a fairer way of at least completing the current work programme, and avoiding such an unfair cut-off point.”
He went on: “On investigations and on inquests, I therefore urge the Government to pause and to listen to the voices of our valued Irish partners in the GFA (Good Friday Agreement), to Northern Ireland parties, and to the victims and survivors.
“I hope too that the Government will reflect on how it can reframe this Bill in order to gain the trust required to help deliver a resolution.”
“I am deeply uncomfortable by the idea of voting for a Bill that will formalise immunity for those who have committed murder and other crimes, but I do however acknowledge that in the range of policy options that the Government is faced with, none are straightforward,” he added.
Elsewhere in the debate, DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) said changes to the Bill are necessary, warned it may “undermine the rule of law” and said it “failed the Northern Ireland test of getting any sense of consensus whatsoever”.
Veterans will be “getting a crumb off the table and the crumb off the table is blue-moulded and will not taste very good”, he said.
Criticism also came from Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry, who described the Bill as “unworkable and incompatible with the principles of justice”.
“The difficulty we have here is that this debate is based around a false narrative of vexatious investigations or prosecutions, which simply does not stack up under scrutiny,” he said.
He warned the legislation could end up “re-traumatising victims” as “people are seeing the potential prospects, slim as it may be, of justice being knocked out over their heads”.
While SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (Foyle) said: “The pretence from this Government that this is about victims or reconciliation is frankly an out-and-out lie.”
He added: “This is an overt attempt to close down access to truth and justice for the victims of our conflict. It rips up the Stormont House Agreement, an agreement that people have bought into and it does not have the support of the parties in Northern Ireland. It has absolutely no support from victims’ groups in Northern Ireland.”
Conservative former defence minister Johnny Mercer told the Commons: “There are no winners in legacy, it is a mess. The whole thing is a disaster but we have to do what we can to bring some sort of end and finality and truth to this process for the victims, and that is what I want colleagues to focus on.”
The Plymouth Moor View MP later added: “People will get away with things they should not get away with. We can bemoan that all we like, we can make speeches, we can speak to our home crowd as much as we like, it is never going to change. Everybody knows it is true.”