That Seanad Éireann totally rejects the British Government’s proposals for ‘dealing with the past’ including amnesties for those who committed murder. No individual, group, organisation or State forces/agents can be immune from prosecution. Investigations, prosecutions, inquests and civil actions cannot be abolished and due process must take place.
I am sharing my time with Senator Barry Ward. I will take 12 minutes and he will take four. At the outset, I thank the Cathaoirleach for his support and I thank Senators from all of the parties in this House and none for co-signing this motion or, I hope, supporting it this evening.
I thank Members for giving me the opportunity over the last week to work across the House to explain the background to this motion as it is written. It was not written by me directly but rather is taken from text written by a cross-community group of victims who are opposed to the British Government proposals on legacy. Some of us met this group over the summer. These people are against an amnesty and want due process to take place. I felt it was important to share the background and their stories with Members. The text has already been signed by members of all the main political parties on this island and I hope it will be endorsed by the Members of this House tonight in solidarity with victims and survivors of the Troubles.
This debate is about much more than legacy prosecutions. It is about taking away people’s hope for truth, accountability and justice and the hope that a fully reconciled society based on honesty and the rule of law can be built.
This command paper not only proposes that there would be no criminal prosecutions but also no criminal investigations, no inquests and no civil actions now or in the future. This would affect the more than 50 inquests before the Belfast High Court, the Stakeknife files currently on the desk of the Belfast Director of Public Prosecutions and the breakthroughs in cases that can come 40 years later because of technological advances. Preventing prosecutions is, therefore, only a part of the offence of this command paper.
It entirely suppresses truth, justice and accountability. It is a lockdown on the rule of law, a lockdown on hope. If we know anything about victims, it is that they will never give up hope and that the truth will come out about what happened their loved ones. Law, order and justice are central to the Good Friday Agreement and the vision of a truly reconciled society in the North. More than anything, that is what I hope for and will work for. A truly reconciled society, however, must be based on honesty and the rule of law. This evening, this House should send a clear message to London. Its proposals are not about helping people to move on or building a reconciled future; its proposals will give it a rule-of-law lockdown and lock us in the past.
Patsy Gillespie was a father of three. He was a civilian chef working in an army base in 1990. The IRA chained him to the steering wheel and pedals of a van containing a 1,200 lb bomb, held his family at gunpoint and ordered him to drive the van into a barracks on the border in Donegal. He was a human bomb. Patsy, who tried to shout a warning, and five soldiers, were murdered. His wife, Kathleen, who is now 71, says she is not hopeful she will ever see justice but is fiercely opposed to a statute of limitations on prosecutions. She says:
The people who murdered my husband are still walking free. I could be walking past them up the town any day and not know who it was.
I feel robbed.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister, WAVE Trauma Centre, the largest cross-community victims’ and survivors’ support group in the North, has stated:
Ask yourself Prime Minister if what is proposed becomes law and an effective amnesty is granted, who will sleep easier at night: Patsy’s wife Kathleen or the people who held her and her children at gunpoint and the person who detonated the bomb?
Up until this point, there has never been an effective mechanism for dealing with legacy cases: a framework to deal comprehensively with the division and horrors of the past and the injustices, as promised to victims groups. You cannot call time on something you have not tried.
The 2014 Stormont House Agreement was brought about by broad political consensus and supported by most victims’ groups. However, despite promises and recommitments in New Decade, New Approach just last year, it was not introduced. There have been other mechanisms, such as the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team, HET, as well as the Legacy Investigations Branch and the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman. HET was arbitrarily closed down in September 2014, ostensibly because of PSNI budget cuts. Nothing has replaced it to date to deal comprehensively with legacy cases. Investigations have been deliberately undermined and limited, obstructed and denied. There has been a lack of funding, information and resources. Victims have had to fight every step of the way.
Another argument used by the British Government to defend the current proposals is that of "vexatious claims" against the British Army. This, too, is disingenuous. First, truth, justice and accountability do not comprise a witch-hunt but a basic human right. When I visited Westminster at the beginning of September and listened to MPs, they said the veterans they represent did not want equivalence with murderers, whether or not they wore a uniform.
Since 2011, there have been 17 prosecutions in respect of legacy cases. Five involved former military personnel, eight involved republican paramilitaries, and four involved loyalist paramilitaries. There have been four convictions so far, all paramilitary. The perception of an imbalance is widely off the mark, with some suggestions that 90% of investigations are into killings by the army. PSNI figures from 2017 show investigations into killings by the army account for 30% of its legacy workload compared to 10% of killings.
The proposals set down by the British Government have been described as a flagrant violation of international and human rights obligations, giving blanket impunity for serious human rights violations. Those are not my words but those of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations and a report by the Committee of the Administration of Justice and Queen's University Belfast. The report describes the proposed statute of limitations as more sweeping than 300 other post-conflict amnesties around the world and what is generally viewed as the worst international example of amnesty, namely, that introduced by Pinochet in Chile. One unionist politician described it as "Pinochet plus".
The command paper compares itself to the South African truth-and-justice model but fails to mention that the possibility of criminal investigation was kept open in South Africa if perpetrators did not co-operate. If we have learned anything, it is that truth and information are not forthcoming without a police-led investigation. State agencies and terror groups do not voluntarily tell the truth. Even under the information-recovery proposals of the Stormont House Agreement, where information could be provided without consequence for the individual, there is little evidence that perpetrators, those in command and control or those with knowledge of the worst will come forward and answer questions. This goes to prove why an investigation with full powers is essential to any justice-and-truth process whether or not there are prosecutions on the far side of investigation. I believe criminal-led investigations are an essential part of Article 2 compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK is obligated under human rights law to conduct such investigations for torture and violations of the right to life. The Stormont House Agreement is not perfect but the principles for consensus should remain the same. If there are to be no investigations, no prosecutions, no inquests and no civil actions, it will mean there cannot be justice, truth or proper acknowledgment.
The criminal investigations being conducted by Jon Boutcher under Operation Kenova – as in relation to the person known as "Stakeknife" – are arguably the best way to discover truths. By having full access to all material held by the state and its agencies and full powers to compel persons and papers, Jon Boutcher has the ability, on paper, to provide reports to families and reports on themes. He is committed to doing both and, importantly, he has the trust of victims in doing it.
I have met many victims and survivors of the Troubles and even though I consider myself incredibly lucky, I too have been deeply affected by conflict, as have my family. I am sure others in this room have been also. None of the victims and survivors I have met, especially the ones I am related to, want retaliation; they want resolution and reconciliation. They and I will feel the greatest loss if we give up on reconciliation based on truth and the rule of law.
The wisdom of the Good Friday Agreement was that it recognised that "conflict revolved around issues of law, order and justice" and proposed policing, criminal justice, rights and equality responses. This is part of the great legacy of Hume, Mallon, O'Hanlon, Currie, Rodgers and their fellow travellers. An approach that abandons the rule of law, jettisons international rights standards and gives amnesty to lawbreakers usurps that achievement and undermines that wisdom. What does that say to new generations? What does it say to victims about where they fit in society? Some of them still live in communities with perpetrators. What does it say to those who have continued paramilitarism and the coercive control of communities, which still is such a major issue today? What of the hard-won gains on issues of law, order and justice?
There is just far too much to lose in this paper. There has been all-but-unanimous rejection of the command paper among victims and survivors, among many who served in the police and army, and by all parties North and South, the Irish Government, faith representatives, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and Members of the US Congress. Let us in Seanad Éireann add our names to that list this evening.