By Richard Wheeler, Ben Hatton and David Lynch, PA Political Staff
Controversial Troubles legacy and reconciliation legislation has cleared its first Commons hurdle without support from any of Northern Ireland’s MPs.
The UK House of Commons voted 285 to 208, majority 77, to give the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill a second reading, which means the principle of the legislation has been approved.
The division list showed only Tory MPs voted in favour, with DUP, SDLP and Alliance’s Stephen Farry (North Down) voting against.
The Bill is intended to establish an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which would review deaths and other harmful conduct within the Troubles – defined as the period from January 1st, 1966 to April 10th, 1998.
It will offer immunity to people who are deemed to have co-operated with the information retrieval body, but criminal prosecutions could still take place.
More than 3,500 people were killed during the Troubles, including over 1,000 members of the security forces, and the new body would seek to help individuals and family members receive more information.
Conservative MPs hope the measures will stop “vexatious” action against British military personnel who served in Northern Ireland.
DUP MP Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) told the Commons: “I know there are members in this chamber that think ‘for goodness sake Northern Ireland legacy, can’t they just agree?’
“Well, we all do agree in Northern Ireland that this Bill is wrong, that this Bill will not command support, that this Bill drives a coach and horses through the pursuit of justice. And I take no pride in that.”
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.”
Mr Farry said: “It is unworkable and incompatible with the principles of justice, the rule of law, reconciliation, and is not compatible either with international human rights standards.”
Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith, who did not vote, urged the Government to “pause” its plans to stop future inquests and other investigations.
He said: “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.”
Opening the debate, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he accepts the UK government’s proposals 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”.
He said the ICRIR 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.
Mr Lewis told the Commons: “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.”
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 added: “The Bill fails to provide a fair and balanced system for veterans that recognises their service, addresses reinvestigations and provides welfare support. Delivering a Bill which provides more benefit to terrorists than veterans or victims is not fair to anyone.”
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns later said talks are ongoing to increase the time available at the Bill’s committee stage to consider amendments after concerns were raised.
The programme motion approved by MPs states proceedings in committee shall be completed in two days.