Is a law that will stop most prosecutions of killings during ‘The Troubles’ really about protecting British soldiers?
The United Kingdom’s House of Lords concluded parliamentary approval of the controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill on Sept. 13. The “legacy bill” proposes to radically truncate the possibility of uncovering the truth behind many violent events of the Northern Irish civil war, commonly known as “the Troubles.”
Currently, criminal prosecutions can be brought against those responsible for crimes committed during the Troubles; civil cases can also be filed and in certain contexts inquests might be initiated. These judicial processes will cease once the legacy bill secures “royal assent,” a formal ratification of a bill that has passed Parliament by the British King.
The legacy bill creates a new body called the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery that will be charged with reviews of deaths and other harms inflicted during the Troubles. It will seek to recover relevant information and, most contentiously, offer conditional amnesties to those responsible for criminal acts if they cooperate with the commission.
The word “reconciliation” is scattered through the language of the bill “like fairy dust” but how the new law would serve reconciliation “remains a mystery.”
The British government insists that this law will “draw a line” under the Troubles and allow Northern Ireland to move on. Victim groups charge that the law is intended to block efforts to unearth the truth and instead to “shut it all down,” destroying the chance that justice might be secured for the victims of the infamous Bloody Sunday and other atrocities.
Opposition to the law is effectively unanimous, drawing together victims’ groups, human rights organizations, the European Union, the United Nations and prominent U.S. politicians. It is practically unheard of for all five main political parties in Northern Ireland to agree on anything, yet they all agree that this law is a bad idea and that victims or their surviving family members deserve to see those responsible for their suffering brought to justice.
Last year, Catholic and Protestant church leaders spoke out in unison to suggest that the law “will not achieve any of its purposes” but would disregard decades of hard work that have allowed the different communities to listen to each other. Unlike in previous experiences with truth dealing meant to help opposing sides emerge from conflict, like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the process in the United Kingdom that would be initiated under the legacy bill is, in the words of the Irish bishops, “heavily weighted in favor of the perpetrators of violence.”
Irish church leaders typically speak with diplomatic caution, so their criticism of the new law has been striking in its directness: “The bill contains provisions that set the bar for immunity from prosecution pitiably low,” Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin and Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland John McDowell wrote in a joint statement.
In their commentary on the proposed law, released in November 2022, they noted that the word “reconciliation” is scattered through the language of the bill “like fairy dust” but how the new law would serve reconciliation “remains a mystery.” Instead of generating a context for peace-building, the leaders argued that “nothing in this bill goes anywhere near providing the environment for that to take place. Perhaps the very opposite.”
The British government insists that this law will “draw a line” under the Troubles and allow Northern Ireland to move on. Victim groups charge that the law is intended to block efforts to unearth the truth.
In the Republic of Ireland, government officials are actively considering challenging the law in the European Court of Human Rights. While usually very cautious on questions relating to Northern Ireland, the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar bluntly declared that the bill is a mistake and is “the wrong way to go about dealing with legacy issues in Northern Ireland.”
The Labour Party in Britain has pledged to repeal the law if it wins the next general election. So while the bill is now almost certain to become law, it might not last long.
With so many political and cultural forces arrayed against the Legacy and Reconciliation proposal, why has Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government pressed on? Kevin Meagher is a political consultant and a regular media commentator on United Kingdom and Ireland affairs. He admits to a “slightly jaundiced” perspective but believes “the truthful account is that the British government is very worried about the progression of lots of cases that will involve the actions of British soldiers during the Troubles.”
By Mr. Meagher’s assessment, the U.K. government is willing to do anything to avoid the scandal of elderly veterans being convicted of atrocities or, perhaps, trials and inquiries that may uncover deep levels of collusion between the British armed forces and Loyalist paramilitaries.
One of the primary incidents that would be presumably left unprosecuted should the law be ratified is the shooting of Irish marchers that became known as Bloody Sunday. While the Troubles are commonly associated with paramilitary violence, the conflict in the 1970s grew out of the failure of a peaceful civil rights movement in the 1960s, explicitly modeled on the American movement.
“The British government is very worried about the progression of lots of cases that will involve the actions of British soldiers during the Troubles.”
“The Civil Rights movement was trying to reform Northern Ireland,” Mr. Meagher says. “They weren’t trying to destroy it. Their demands were very modest. It was very much a carbon copy of the American movement, marching together, singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ committed to non-violence.”
The considerable momentum behind that movement ended dramatically on Jan. 30, 1972, when a peaceful march protesting the despised policy of internment—Catholic men rounded up and held without charges or trial—was met with fatal violence from British soldiers. Paratroopers opened fire on the unarmed crowd—26 people were shot and 14 died. The hope of reforming Northern Ireland through peaceful protest died with them. Bloody Sunday served to immeasurably strengthen the cause of the paramilitary organizations.
David Cameron, while serving as British Prime Minister in 2010, admitted that “Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable.” But at present, no soldier has been convicted because of the massacre. With the legacy bill, that prosecution would become impossible.
Even if short-lived, the consequences of the bill could be far-reaching. The Northern Irish state was established in part to protect a Protestant majority in Ulster. But demographics have shifted in contemporary Northern Ireland: Today there are more Catholics than Protestants.
Forcing the contentious law through against the clear will of the people may do more to hasten a unified Ireland than photographs of septuagenarian veterans in court for crimes they committed decades ago. There is a “palpable sense that nothing in Northern Ireland is working,” Mr. Meagher says, “and this bill is kind of emblematic of that.”
If nothing else, the legacy bill has exposed just how deep the chasm is between the British government and people in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile the Irish government presses on with its own peace-building initiatives, this week launching a billion-euro reconciliation package from the European Union to help Irish counties on both sides of the border recover from the Troubles. More evidence, Mr. Meagher claims, that Northern Ireland “is going out of business…it probably will not exist in 10 or 15 years.”
There is no peace without justice, and no justice without truth, and as Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers understood, all true movements for social reform must be motivated by love, “the most durable power.” The legacy bill short-circuits what Ireland’s bishops describe as “the slow building of trust leading to courageous truth telling” required for true reconciliation. It replaces that most durable power with a hollow process of “information retrieval.”
Last November, the bishops concluded their critique of the proposed reconciliation effort by speculating that it is almost as if it were “designed to fail.” As it now awaits its formal ratification, that may be the best the people in Northern Ireland can hope for.