UK’s controversial Northern Ireland ‘legacy’ bill: All you need to know

The bill, which aims to reconcile Northern Ireland’s Troubles-era legacy issues, would offer a conditional amnesty to accused killers.

A man wears a mask during a protest against the UK’s intention to stop prosecutions related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland at the entrance to the Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

The House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of the United Kingdom’s parliament, began reviewing amendments made to a controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill on September 5.

The bill that would offer those accused of murder conditional immunity has been heavily criticised by victim groups, human rights organisations and all of Northern Ireland’s political parties.

Here is what you need to know about the proposed bill:

What is the Northern Ireland legacy bill?

The bill, which is almost 100 pages long, was introduced in May 2022 and promotes the establishment of an independent commission that would deal with more than 1,000 unsolved killings.

The bill would offer a controversial conditional amnesty to those accused of the killings in exchange for cooperating with the commission in their investigations.

According to the UK government, the bill aims to “address the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles and promote reconciliation”.

What were ‘the Troubles’?

The Troubles were a bloody, decades-long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between the overwhelmingly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who wanted the region to remain part of the UK, and the overwhelmingly Catholic nationalists, or republicans, who wished to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland.

In 1969, the British army was deployed to counter the uprising, and fighting continued into the 1990s until it ended with the Good Friday Agreement.

The political deal, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was signed on April 10, 1998 by the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s key political parties, including Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

How many legacy cases are there?

Overall, more than 3,500 people were killed, and it is estimated that more than 40,000 people were injured in the conflict.

Human rights group Amnesty International says that “in most cases, no one has ever been held responsible, and the truth of what happened has gone uncovered”.

What are the latest amendments?

The bill has been handed from the UK’s Parliament House of Commons for consideration to the House of Lords, after three back-and-forths between the two chambers.

The House of Lords had backed an amendment preventing a person from requesting immunity from prosecution as part of any future investigation. Another amendment requested that the commission conduct its reviews in accordance with criminal justice processes and procedures.

The House of Commons reinstated the immunity provision and removed the criminal process and procedures requirements but adjusted the bill’s wording.

Northern Ireland
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris said the immunity provisions would be key in helping to generate ‘the greatest volume of information, in the quickest possible time’ [File: Daniel Leal/AFP]

Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said after the review that the Commons were “grateful” to the House of Lords for their suggestions.

“However, we cannot agree to an amendment which would altogether remove the conditional immunity clauses from the Bill,” he wrote in a statement.

“This Government believes that the conditional immunity provisions will be key in helping to generate the greatest volume of information, in the quickest possible time.”

Who is opposing the Northern Ireland legacy bill?

Sinn Fein, currently the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland, has strongly opposed the bill, with its deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, labelling it a “denial of human rights of victims and their families”.

Speaking at a recent convention commemorating a five-year hunger strike during the Troubles by Irish republican prisoners in Northern Ireland, she called the bill both “antidemocratic” and “unjust”.

The legislation’s sole purpose, she said, was to “conceal the truth and protect British state forces” as she urged the British government to withdraw this legislation.

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Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson urged the UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to drop the bill [File: Paul Faith/AFP]

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has also expressed opposition to the bill.

In June, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson wrote to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urging him “not to proceed with the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill in the face of almost universal opposition from victims, survivors and their families”.

Victim groups, Amnesty International, and the Council of Europe have all expressed concerns over the bill.

Who is supporting the Northern Ireland Legacy Bill?

The UK’s governing Conservative Party supports the bill.

Sunak has remained tight-lipped on the matter, leaving Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, to handle the pushback.

Heaton-Harris recently said the legislation would deliver swift, better outcomes for those most affected by the Troubles.

Representatives of the Northern Ireland Veterans Movement, a group representing 200,000 Army veterans who served in Northern Ireland, have announced that they fully support the controversial plan.

Source: Al Jazeera