Today the Government announced the introduction of legislation to provide greater certainty for service personnel and veterans who serve in armed conflicts overseas. Alongside this, we are setting out how we propose to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland in a way that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, and ends the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in Northern Ireland that has failed victims and veterans alike - ensuring equal treatment of Northern Ireland veterans and those who served overseas.
We have heard from many across Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that the current approach is not working well for anyone, and that it erodes confidence in public institutions that exist to support society as a whole. Discussions about how to change this have been ongoing for many years. The Stormont House Agreement in 2014 was an important milestone, but it did not stop the debate continuing.
Many families have waited too long to find out what happened to their loved ones, while those who defended the rule of law deserve certainty that there will be an end to repeated questions about what happened during their service. A better way to deal with the past is necessary, if we are to help the whole of society to effectively heal the wounds of the Troubles and become better reconciled with our difficult history.
In 2018, the Government carried out a public consultation on ‘Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past’, inviting views on proposals based on the Stormont House Agreement. The consultation attracted over 17,000 responses - summarised in the Government’s ‘Analysis of the consultation responses’, published in July 2019. We have carefully considered each and every one of these, and sought to identify a way forward that will deliver for all those affected by the legacy of the Troubles and enable all sides of the community to reconcile and prosper. It is clear that, while the principles underpinning the draft Bill as consulted on in 2018 remain, significant changes will be needed to obtain a broad consensus for the implementation of any legislation. We believe that the proposals set out below provide a framework for doing this.
It is the Government’s view that to best meet the needs of all victims and of wider society, we need to shift the focus of our approach to the past. While there must always be a route to justice, experience suggests that the likelihood of justice in most cases may now be small, and continues to decrease as time passes. Our view is that we should now therefore centre our attention on providing as much information as possible to families about what happened to their loved ones - while this is still possible.
Our proposals have therefore evolved to remain true to the principles of the Stormont House Agreement but with a greater emphasis on gathering information for families; moving at a faster pace to retrieve knowledge before it is lost; and doing more to help individuals and society to share and understand the tragic experiences of the past.
It is proposed that these measures should be carried out by one independent body to ensure the most efficient and joined-up approach, putting the needs of the individuals most affected at the heart of the process. This body will oversee and manage both the information recovery and investigative aspects of the legacy system, and provide every family with a report with information concerning the death of their loved one.
The Government wants information recovery and reconciliation to be at the heart of a revised legacy system that puts victims first. The Government is committed to the rule of law but given the considerable time that has elapsed since many of these incidents took place it is vital that we swiftly implement an effective information recovery mechanism before this information is lost forever.
The Government will ensure that the investigations which are necessary are effective and thorough, but quick, so we are able to move beyond the cycle of investigations that has, to date, undermined attempts to come to terms with the past. Only cases in which there is a realistic prospect of a prosecution as a result of new compelling evidence would proceed to a full police investigation and if necessary, prosecution. Cases which do not reach this threshold, or subsequently are not referred for prosecution, would be closed and no further investigations or prosecutions would be possible - though family reports would still be provided to the victims’ loved ones. Such an approach would give all participants the confidence and certainty to fully engage with the information recovery process.
The Government believes that this approach would deliver a fair, balanced, and proportionate system that is consistent with the principles of the Stormont House Agreement and deliver for all those who have been affected by the events of the past; striking a balance in enabling criminal investigations to proceed where necessary, while facilitating a swift transition to an effective information recovery mechanism before this information is lost forever.
The Government is committed to introducing legislation in line with our commitments in ‘New Decade, New Approach’, to move forward and deliver for all communities in Northern Ireland and beyond.