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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Oct 2021

Vol. 279 No. 5

British Government Legacy Proposals: Motion

I move:

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.

I thank Senator Currie for the initiative behind this motion and her words. She has an insight into the matter that many of us do not have. Some of us do. All of us have connections with Northern Ireland and Britain. The reality is that, over generations, we have been inextricably linked with those parts of these islands, if I can put it in those terms. My own grandfather was from Claudy, County Derry. Everybody on this island has connections with the North. My sister lives in London. She is married to a Welshman. My two nieces are English, although I do not believe my sister would necessarily admit that. We have, for a long time, had an uncomfortable relationship with our nearest neighbour. It is obviously born out of a past that has involved considerable conflict. Senator Currie has outlined some of the most atrocious details of that conflict.

What is really striking is that, after the Good Friday Agreement, we entered a period of relative calm or of good relations with Britain. There was a maturity and grown-upness to that relationship that benefited all of us, on both sides of the Irish Sea and on both sides of the divide between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

What is extraordinary about this is it is symptomatic of a complete change in behaviour in the United Kingdom, specifically in Britain. I come from a legal background. I am a barrister and I have mixed feelings towards British rule of law because you can credit Britain with being the birthplace of parliamentary democracy and the establishment of so many human rights and aspects of the rule of law. On the other hand, as a function of an imperial nation there are also terrible atrocities in terms of its rule of law and terrible miscarriages of justice have been perpetrated, usually against people who are not part of the establishment within Britain. That happens in France, Spain and other imperial countries as well. To a large extent, we have been able to rely on Britain as a symbol of the rule of law, as a country that makes good on its international obligations and on its commitment to such things as the Council of Europe and, in its day, to the European Union.

I am glad the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is here for this debate because he has a connection to the UK, having lived there, and as Minister for Foreign Affairs, he had considerable responsibility in regard to Brexit and has been intricately involved in it. It seems, however, that the UK, specifically London, has absolutely lost that grasp on the rule of law and respect for international agreements. Today the Tánaiste criticised the UK Government for essentially doing a U-turn on an agreement it made very recently. How can we possibly continue to have good relations or even democratic relations with a country that does not abide by its own agreements and that signs up to an agreement one day and the next day says that when it signed up to it that it did not really mean it and was never going to abide by it? That is no way to interact with the international community. The international community cannot function if countries behave in that way. The same is true in respect of this amnesty.

Of course, in many conflicts there comes a time when an amnesty is an appropriate step. There is a time when lines need to be drawn under conflicts and progress needs to be made in a particular direction. However, when that happens, it happens by consent, with the agreement of the parties to that conflict and in a way that does not let people off the hook. For example, speaking of South Africa, as Senator Currie said, there were other aspects to that which are totally absent from this. When it is described as Pinochet plus, you can see the category that this kind of behaviour is in. I am really worried that this is symptomatic of a disintegration of the rule of law in Britain and the UK and a complete abandonment of the principles it always held dear and quite proudly. It would speak of its honour in regard to international agreements and the rule of law. All of that appears to be evaporating. This amnesty is a further symptom of that.

There is a notion that the establishment in Britain, which is really what we are talking about, the rule in London, can say to the victims on both sides of the conflict that it is drawing a line under this, no matter how unfair or unreasonable it is and no matter how at odds it is with all international and legal opinion, and that it is going to push it through, notwithstanding all those other problems. I do not know how we can relate to or deal with a country like that because it has abandoned the principles it previously held dear and the principles that underpin international agreements and the rule of law. I worry about the future of this island's relationship with its neighbouring island if one party, being London, decides that it is not going to respect those principles anymore. The one thing we know is that when we enjoyed a more mature relationship with the UK it was because we respected each other's views and the importance of parity of esteem between the two sides in any conflict. With that gone, I fear for the future of how we are going to interact and, in any way, resolve the problems that exist in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to the House. I acknowledge the work Senator Currie has done pulling together broad support for her Private Members' motion. I mention the fact the Department responded to a Commencement matter I raised on this issue on 21 September 2021 and I have the Department's response here. The Minister could not be in the House on that particular day. It made for interesting reading and it gave me more hope. I was particularly taken by the closing statement. I will not rehearse all of that now because it can be read on the Oireachtas website. However, I thank the Minister and acknowledge his enormous commitment.

I read a very interesting piece in The Guardian attributed to the Minister and his Department in regard to this issue. The Minister stands very firm and resolute in how he intends to deal with the issue and that is to be encouraged. I also acknowledge the clarity the Taoiseach has brought to this issue. The Government is ad idem on this issue and is determined to take it on and to recognise it is wrong.

To set some context, Senators and Deputies as well as representatives from the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive met with a cross-community group of victims' campaigners in Belfast City Hall on 30 August 2021. That was a meeting of cross-community groups and members of political parties on both sides of the Border. It is worth pointing out that those who travelled to Belfast that day, included Senator Currie Senator Mark Daly, the Cathaoirleach, and myself and Deputy Lawless from Fianna Fáil, Deputy Howlin from the Labour Party, and Deputy Costello from the Green Party. That was a very important engagement. At the heart of this discussion was the moving account by Raymond McCord, Julie Hambleton and Lorraine McCausland. There were tears, emotions, sadness in recounting the painful legacy. We need to focus on the legacy issues. The Department is very much focused on legacy issues and the need to tackle them.

I, along with Senator Currie and all the Members of the Oireachtas there, signed what that group requested. I am fully committed, about which there is no ambiguity or doubt, to the principle here. I was contacted by individuals but I do not think it is necessary to sign a document again. It was presented in Westminster, and that is an important point.

I am also a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and I will attend a meeting it this weekend, as will Senator Currie and others from these Houses. I will certainly be using my influence there to talk to Members of the House of Lords and to MPs about our concern. I used an opportunity in the American Embassy, when I spoke to some state legislators there last night, to share my concerns. I will use every opportunity open to me to raise the issues. There are serious concerns.

People have simply lost confidence in the British Government's capacity to deal with the past and these issue, and it is important to acknowledge that. No individual group, no organisation, no state forces or agents can be immune from prosecution. It is as simple as that; there can be no ambiguity. Investigations, prosecutions, inquests and civil actions cannot be abolished. Due process must take place.

One of the things we took away, and I think Senator Currie will agree, was that these campaigners wanted people to listen. There was a common thread throughout their discussions with us in Belfast City Hall that day. They felt that they were being told to draw a line under it and to move on, but they want and are entitled to accountability. They want truth and justice for their families, neighbours and loved ones, and they are entitled to get that.

It was interesting that subsequent to that meeting, 35 Members of the US Congress, including Brendan Boyle and Brian Fitzpatrick, great friends of Ireland, signed a letter to the British Prime Minister calling on the UK Government to reaffirm its commitment to the Stormont House Agreement and for the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to scrap his proposals to ban future prosecutions related to the Northern Ireland Troubles, that is, the painful issues and the painful legacy. US legislators have expressed concern and that is important. We must keep our US and EU contacts close as well as our colleagues in the UK because we have many advocates and supporters there.

When the Minister, Deputy Coveney, talks about Northern Ireland, the bigger issue and the commonality of the islands, I am always conscious of how much we have in common. I have listened to many speeches he has made where he talks about the commonality. We have more in common in terms of supporting one another, be it around Brexit, trade or being good neighbours, which I support. I very much support what has been said here. It is important that we have a path to truth, justice and reconciliation.

Summing up on that Commencement matter, the Minister speaking on the Minister's behalf said that there must be framework for dealing with the past that meets the legitimate needs of families, provides a real pathway to reconciliation and critically upholds our human rights obligations, including those under the European Convention on Human Rights.

It is where we are. We have allies in Europe and friends in America. Dare I say it, we have allies in the Palace of Westminster, and I certainly intend tapping into them in the next few days when I am over there.

I support this process and I want to be very clear so there is no ambiguity. I am glad to have this opportunity to yet again state my commitment to it. I acknowledge the Minister's commitment in the area and it is important that we work together to address, in a meaningful way, the pain and suffering so many people had to endure. I am a regular traveller to Northern Ireland and I have business contacts there, along with family and friends. I am there regularly. I do not see a Border in terms of minds, hearts, interests and community. We have much in common but we must move on and recognise that justice must be served. The people who shared their stories with us, pouring out their hearts, are losing faith and hope. I hope we can stand in solidarity with them and we must have more than just words and motions. We must see action through real and tangible commitments.

I thank the Minister for coming before us today. It is appropriate he is here for the debate on this motion. I wish him well over the next few weeks with his deliberations on the workings of the protocol. I thank Senator Currie for bringing the motion before the House and sharing a little insight into her background. It is appropriate that she has led the debate given the background of the Senator and her family in Northern Ireland politics. She referred to her upbringing. I also thank her colleague, Senator Barry Ward.

We saw an attempt to bring a similar amnesty in 2005 and that was correctly stopped with great effort made by the families of victims seeking justice for loved ones and the political parties that did not want those involved in murder to walk free. The Good Friday Agreement was a landmark document that finally brought peace to this island but it should not be used as a shield for human rights violations simply because they preceded the agreement. The Good Friday Agreement was achieved through co-operation and dialogue and it is shameful that the UK Government has proposed this amnesty without prior consideration with others and due process. This is a very difficult and sensitive matter. We simply cannot ignore the reality of what happened in many cases. I am glad the Ballymurphy family members were involved in the process leading to this motion.

We are all familiar with cases where extrajudicial force was used by either the British Army or the Royal Ulster Constabulary, RUC, against what they deemed as threats but instead were simply civilians. I will speak about one of those and bring it to the record of the House today. I hope the death of this person sheds some light on why the proposed amnesty is untenable and simply flies in the face of justice. Michael Leonard was a 24-year-old lad when he was shot dead by police officers of the RUC on 17 May 1973 in County Fermanagh. He was shot in the back and killed 200 yards from the Donegal border for driving while disqualified.

The RUC claimed at the time that one accidental shot was fired and it struck Michael but that was not the case. There were multiple and deliberate shots. In an official report, the British armed forces claimed that Michael was a member of the Provisional IRA but he never was. He was a civilian with a motoring misdemeanour. We have learned since that RUC constables were aware of who they were following and they were following Michael with the intent of shooting to kill. The Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, stated to The Irish News that it would treat Michael's death as a murder but it changed its stance since when questioned by another publication. No officer has faced charges and this proposed amnesty will ensure nobody ever will. There are many other similar cases and I am sure plenty more will be put on the record today.

Michael Leonard was one of the many victims of the time whose family has yet to see justice. Any discussion must start with consideration of justice for innocent victims and their families. We cannot stand by in silence and allow the British Government to move forward with this betrayal and injustice. The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights and the Law Society of Northern Ireland have rejected these proposals. The Council of Europe has stated the proposed amnesty risks undermining human rights protection and will cut off avenues to justice for victims and families. The Commissioner for Human Rights has said the UK plan will lead to impunity and cannot be the foundation on which transitional justice is built, and that it could obstruct the effectiveness of future investigations into killings.

For decades we strived for peace on this island and this peace was achieved with a promise of truth and reconciliation. How can we move forward if truth is to be covered up and reconciliation is made impossible? The UK Government will not find much support for this if it wishes to vanquish the human rights of victims to protect perpetrators of crime. Groups that support perpetrators over victims are not our desired company.

A joint study by Queen's University Belfast and the Committee on the Administration of Justice has compared the UK's proposed amnesty with those seen in the past but the proposed amnesty goes further to protect perpetrators than the amnesty introduced by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. One of the authors of the study indicates that the proposed UK amnesty would offer the broadest form of impunity of approximately 300 amnesties surveyed. In this House we are all well aware of the work done by Lord Robin Eames and Mr. Denis Bradley and the effort they put into the report dealing with the past. That report outlined a pathway towards reconciliation but was abandoned with a change of the UK Government. The report stated that a general amnesty would not be appropriate in current circumstances and the route of investigation and prosecution should be kept open.

We must acknowledge that the Troubles are a living memory for many people and families who have lost loved ones. In asking those people to forget about seeking justice, the UK Government is asking them to move on and accept the wrongdoing their families have endured. Kidnapping, torture and the cold-blooded murder of civilians cannot be forgotten and therefore cannot be forgiven by offering impunity to perpetrators. We must invoke the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and work through dialogue, open and honest communication and co-operation to deliver justice and peace to the victims and their loved ones.

I state for the record that I and my party colleagues wish to be joint signatories of this motion.

Every life is precious and justice must always reign supreme. Atrocities were perpetrated on both sides and by state forces but this should not mean the surviving victims cannot have answers to their questions or the comfort of knowing that those who bestowed deep sadness on them by destroying their families would be held to account. We cannot cancel evil or sweep it under the carpet just by saying it happened in both communities and everywhere. Evil is evil, murder is murder and wrong is wrong.

The UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is of the opinion that the best way to help Northern Ireland move forward along the road to reconciliation is to forget about the past and this accountability. Those best placed to know about this are those who have suffered. In a rare show of strength across community lines in Northern Ireland, everyone, including parties like mine not born of the Troubles, is of one voice. The leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, Ms Clare Bailey, MLA, stated that the amnesty proposal is contrary to the rule of law and based on an entirely false premise that we can somehow draw a line in the sand with regard to the legacy of the conflict.

The amnesty proposal is contrary to the rule of law and is based on an entirely false premise that we can somehow draw a line in the sand with regard to the legacy of the conflict. The trauma of conflict is intergenerational. The communities that were worst impacted by the conflict are today the communities that are suffering disproportionately from the mental health crises, socio-economic challenges and, in many cases, problematic drug and alcohol abuse.

Lord Denning of all people, a controversial but very able judge in England, in upholding an appeal in 1980 by the West Midlands Police against a civil action brought by the Birmingham Six for injuries received in custody, said that the consequences for the English legal system of accepting that police officers were lying was such an appalling vista - immortalising that particular phrase - that every sensible person would reject it. Lord Denning would later retreat from the standpoint he held and said that the people had been terribly let down by the police. He is correct that the people were let down by the police.

I understand that people are drawing the conclusion that the reason for the unilateral decision of the British Government is part of a cover-up and that somehow that Government is not willing to wash dirty laundry, does not understand that we do not have authentic true peace without reconciliation, and that this is not about punishment at its heart. It is not about putting people into prison. It is about truth. The truth will set people free. No matter how long ago these atrocious and barbaric acts happened, there would still be afforded the comfort of the rule of law, which is a rule of law that is celebrated in Britain, although in recent years one would wonder at times how a great country of common law could deteriorate into such a fractious controversy. They would still be protected by the courts. The normal defence could be mounted: that maybe delay has meant that the prejudicial effect would utterly outweigh the probative value of the evidence, or that the evidence is from so long ago that it may allegedly or potentially been tampered with. Why are people worried about the rule of law? It is also to come under the very high threshold of "beyond reasonable doubt". The way things are at the moment, this will not bring about the necessary healing.

Since I was elected as a Member of this House, that healing must begin in the Twenty-six Counties. My observation of this House is that it is predominantly from a nationalist school. It is a shame that we did not get our Unionist friend Ian Marshall into this House again. I do not like labels but many commentators would regard this House as predominantly from a nationalist, republican background.

I thought the Senator had said "national school" there.

No. Nationalist, but at times it is a bit of a kindergarten. The nationalist, republican house of the Twenty-six Counties is fractured at the moment. We should begin by healing the house of nationalism in the Republic of Ireland before we lecture the people in Northern Ireland. There is an awful lot more we could do here. There are people who have done terrible things in the name of a united Ireland, allegedly thinking this would bring it forward. One of those atrocities was cited by Senator Currie. Perhaps there will have to be a frank exchange, and people may say that it was very wrong and that it damaged a united Ireland. Perhaps that frank conversation has to happen. There are also those people who can easily be pointed at, but perhaps they also need to be heard. Perhaps they feel, with some justification, that this State did stand idly by at times and let the Six Counties go when they did not have a voice. Perhaps there was too much cosying up to prime ministers like Maggie Thatcher, which upset greatly the nationalist community, but we must have that open conversation.

I am not being judgmental about it but healing begins in this House. It should be such a powerful force of good it will propel itself into the Six Counties of our beautiful isle. Until we embrace an authentic peace that has at its heart peace, healing and reconciliation we are going nowhere. I commend Senator Currie, and everyone behind this motion. It is an important step. There is not one game changing step but this is an important step in the right direction. I understand that academics might feel that this is a bridge too far and it is time to move on but the Green Party and I do not believe that we can move on by sweeping the past under a carpet.

The British Government's amnesty proposals for dealing with the people that its armed forces killed, openly and secretly, is an attempt to cover up murder by the British state on a grand scale. It is aimed at protecting those who pulled the triggers and those who politically gave its armed forces permission to carry out public and secret executions, in the main of people not involved in the conflict who were primarily members of the nationalist community.

The Relatives for Justice organisation, which is dedicated to representing the relatives of those killed and is campaigning for the truth for their loved ones, estimates that the British Government is responsible for nearly one third of all the killings. We all know that the British armed forces are responsible for the massacres on Bloody Sunday, in Ballymurphy, Springhill and Westrock, and on the New Lodge Road, for the murders of other individuals going about their normal everyday lives, and for the high-profile shoot-to-kill operations where IRA or INLA volunteers were summarily executed when an arrest operation would have been a viable option but was rejected in preference for a politically motivated execution.

Generally speaking, the British Government defended the actions of its forces at the time of the killings and continues to do so weekly in the courts in Belfast, blocking relatives who are trying to get truth and justice. The public record clearly shows that the British Government is responsible for these killings. The public record also clearly shows that the British Government is denying justice to the relatives of those it killed, and has done so for the past 50 years. What of the public record of its actions using loyalists, through collusion, to kill more than 400 people? These deaths include bomb attacks on McGurk's Bar, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, and attacks such as those on the Strand Bar in my own community. The public record shows, through a series of inquiries some of which were set up by the British Government, the widespread systemic use of collusion. I remind the Seanad that collusion is the organised and planned murder of citizens by British intelligence officers and loyalists collaborating together. The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Stevens, said in April 2013 that as part of his inquiries into collusion he questioned 210 members of illegal loyalist paramilitary groups, and that 207 were state agents. In January 2015, Sir Desmond de Silva's report into the killing of the human rights lawyer Pat Finucane said that more than 90% of the intelligence information in the hands of loyalists came from members of the British armed forces. Stevens and de Silva were appointed by the British Government to carry out their investigations. The senior loyalist, Brian Nelson, the main intelligence officer for the UDA, which is the principal loyalist organisation, was also a British army agent. He told Lord Stevens that he had been tasked by his British army handlers to make the UDA a more effective killing machine. Brian Nelson was not recruited from the ranks of the UDA. He was actively placed there by British intelligence to carry out his murderous work.

In her book Lethal Allies, the highly respected journalist Anne Cadwallader investigated the killing of 110 people by the notorious Glenanne gang. In all of the killings a member of the British Crown forces was involved. There is a clear trail of evidence from the streets of the North to Downing Street, linking those in the British Crown forces who publicly killed on behalf of the British Government. Even though the British Government has denied justice and truth to the relatives of those it publicly killed, it cannot wriggle out of its direct responsibility. It is there irrefutably on the public record. This is not so with collusion, which was the British Government's secret war, and its amnesty proposals will keep the details of that secret war in the vaults of Downing Street and Whitehall, never to be revealed. Even though there is an abundance of evidence in the public domain through inquiries linking British intelligence and loyalists, these amnesty proposals, if they were implemented, would protect the British Cabinet, from the Prime Minister down, from its full responsibility and blame for these killings.

These proposals have brought swift national and international criticism from human rights organisations and are described as worse that the actions of Chile's military dictator in terms of their sweeping and catch-all nature. This unilateral action stands in marked contrast to the support from relatives and supporters for the proposals that the Irish and British Governments and the North's political parties agreed to in the Stormont House Agreement. In a consultation on these proposals, more than 17,000 people supported them and opposed an amnesty. The Time for Truth campaign, an umbrella group representing victims across society, has organised a number of large-scale demonstrations against these British Government proposals, including a day of action with mobilisation across all of Ireland just a number of weekends ago.

Last year, Relatives for Justice organised the signing, by 3,500 relatives bereaved in the conflict, of an open letter in the Irish and US media to An Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister supporting the Stormont House Agreement. The British Government did not have the decency to respond.

The UK is alone with these proposals. There is no community or political support in Ireland, the US or Europe. To date, the UN special rapporteur, Amnesty International, the Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe, the US Senate and House of Representatives, the Irish Government and all the political parties here, the law society in the North, the British Labour Party, the previous adviser to the Obama Administration, Michael Posner, the US ad hoc committee to protect the Good Friday Agreement, church leaders and, crucially, the relatives of those killed and maimed, oppose these amnesty proposals. These proposals have a twin objective, namely, to protect those in Britain's armed forces who were responsible for killing civilians and those in the British Cabinet who gave political support and cover to those involved through collusion in the secret war. There is only one interpretation, namely, that the British Government and its armed forces are above the law and are not accountable for the killing of hundreds of people.

There is only one solution. The British Government must listen to the calls from human rights organisations and bereaved relatives and to the call from the Seanad tonight. It must work with the Minister, his Government colleagues and all the political parties on this island to fully implement the Stormont House Agreement.

On a personal note, I know I do not need to convince Senators but I will leave them with a potential scenario. I fully accept this case is just one instance of hundreds and thousands of cases and of people who have been impacted by the conflict. The Ballymurphy massacre was cited earlier. Less than a year after it occurred, the British Army returned to the adjoining streets of Springhill and Westrock and murdered a further five people. Less than a year after Fr. Hugh Mullan was killed, Fr. Noel Fitzpatrick, of Corpus Christi parish as well, was shot and fatally wounded. Fr. Fitzpatrick, having been shot, was brought to my grandmother's home in Westrock Drive, where he drew his last breaths.

His family and the families of the rest of those killed in Springhill and Westrock have, like so many others, campaigned for 50 years for an inquest, the most basic of entitlements when someone has been lost like this. Now, after 50 years, they are finally awaiting the potential of that inquest taking place next year. The real impact of this legislation is that, at the stroke of a pen, a Tory government in London can say "No". That applies to so many others and so many victims and survivors and it is why it is so important that a clear message go from this House, unified and unanimous as it is but also adamant we cannot allow these proposals to go forward.

I thank Senator Currie for bringing the motion to the floor of the House and for being so gracious and reaching out to get cross-party support for it. I thank also Senator Ó Donnghaile for telling such a powerful personal story to communicate the impact this amnesty would have. It is clear the British Government's proposals for dealing with the past are preventing prosecutions for conflict-related offences and any future investigations, civil actions or legacy inquests. It is simple: no individual, group, organisation, state forces, agents or people who colluded can be immune from prosecution of war crimes. We can imagine the horror that would come from the British Government, or from our Government, if Serbia, for example, decided to give an amnesty to somebody like Radovan Karadži. Even today, people in Germany who were guards at Auschwitz in 1945, including a 100-year-old man who was a guard at Sachsenhausen, are standing trial for their collusion in the war crimes of the Third Reich.

Due process for people is a right. Without it, the families of victims are denied truth and justice and the wounds of the conflict remain forever fresh. We need to demand investigations that are compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. To have no investigation and no explanation for bereaved families weighs heavily. For decades, the rights of families to effective independent investigations have been denied by the British Government; with this proposal, they will be denied forever. Without investigations, we would not have heard of the harrowing story, referenced by Senator Ó Donnghaile, of the Ballymurphy massacre, where ten people were murdered by the Parachute Regiment of the British Army. Those murdered were entirely innocent and unarmed. Had the massacre been investigated at the time, it might have prevented the killing of 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday by exactly the same Parachute Regiment in Derry in 1972. These are just a few of the thousands of stories of atrocities committed by the British Army and state in colluding in sectarian killings.

Approximately 3,500 bereaved relatives of those killed during the Troubles wrote an open letter earlier this year in which they called on the British State to seek assurances that their rights as victims would no longer be disregarded or denied. The British Government has a clear choice. It can decide to be a state that continues to cover up and collude in human rights atrocities in Northern Ireland or it can commit to a human rights-based legal framework that allows the conflicts of the past to be investigated. Political parties on both sides of the Border are unified, and not even the Good Friday Agreement could unify all the political parties, to reject this proposal for an amnesty. It must not be ignored. I know the Government, particularly through the Minister, will continue to press for justice for people in Northern Ireland and this State.

The Minister is welcome to the House. I commend my colleague, Senator Currie, on bringing the motion to the House. It is wonderful that she is doing this and that everybody is so unified in respect of it. As we discussed last week, representatives from all major parties North and South recently signed a document outlining their rejection of the UK Government's proposals to introduce an amnesty for legacy killings. The document, signed by all the main parties in Belfast and Dublin, states they reject the British Government's proposals for dealing with the past, including amnesty for those accused of murder.

As we are all well aware, the Good Friday Agreement was welcomed, warmly and rightly, by the majority of people on this island. It did, however, have one gaping hole or omission to which we must now face up. It did not address the rights of the victims of the conflict. It did not ensure that their rights, as enshrined by all international conventions of law, would be protected and advanced. Our peace agreement became an outlier in the international community because of its failure to address the impact of the conflict on the people harmed most. As a result, the peace process shamefully neglected victims of the conflict. However, in 2014, the body politic of both islands at last began to make restitution by signing the Stormont House Agreement. This was the beginning of ensuring the peace process would be meaningful for the victims.

Bereaved parents who were in their 40s and 50s when they voted so selflessly for a peace agreement that did not recognise them were made a promise that their rights to truth and justice would at last be fulfilled. Now, however, in 2021, a year and a half after New Decade, New Approach recommitted the British Government to implementing the Stormont House Agreement within 100 days, these same parents now face death with the most shameful legislation imaginable about to pass through Westminster's Legislature. Complete and unashamed amnesty would be unprecedented and unconscionable. It is unbearable that we now turn to those mothers and fathers and tell them they will never have truth or justice because the British Government would prefer to shield a small number of unnamed soldiers from a maximum of 24 months in prison.

Whether those parents buried their children as a result of republican, loyalist or state actions, they have a moral right to truth and justice and we have a moral duty to defend that right. The mother of three-year-old James, who was shot dead in his front garden, has never received an official account of who took his life.

From being told that it was a stray IRA bullet to being told that it might have been the British army, this mother is now in her 80s with a lifetime of torture of not knowing what actually happened. Now she has been told that this legislation, which will end any prospect of a full, effective and, critically, an independent investigation, is in her interest.

There is the mother of a 14-year-old girl called Martha who was walking home with her best friend when a gun battle commenced. No one has claimed responsibility for taking Martha's life but many people have speculated about who it was for 40 years. Her nearly blind mother is now in her 90s and she holds on for just two things - truth and justice - only for the British Government to tell her that it cares so much about her that she cannot have an inquest into her daughter's killing.

The father of Rory and Gerard, who were killed in their home on the birthday of their sister, Róisín, by state agents now faces the prospect of ignominy instead of justice. Victims of the conflict deserve much more than tea and sympathy or empty promises not to forget them. Victims understand perfectly well the implications of the deliberate passing of time. They also have a right to the full rigour of the law. They have a right to investigations that are compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR. They have a right to expect that when all the parties and both Governments sign an agreement, that the agreement will be adhered to. There must be truth and justice for James, Martha, Gerard, Rory and all the thousands of others. No legislator has the right to deny that.

I commend Senator Ó Donnghaile on his emotive description of what life has been like. My father was a Northern man and I spent a lot of my youth in the North. When my siblings and I were very young we saw the army presence on the streets when our family travelled to the North, which was scary. I cannot imagine what it was like to live in the North in constant fear of what was going to happen next.

I acknowledge the work done by the Minister. I am proud to be here today to discuss, in unity with all Members of the Seanad, this motion. Finally, I commend Senator Currie on tabling the motion.

I, too, welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to the House and acknowledge the phenomenal work that he is doing on behalf of this country, not just on this hugely important issue but on Brexit. We have all seen over the last few days and weeks the Brexit situation and the difficult challenges faced by the Minister. Brexit and legacy proposals are interwoven because we are talking about the British Government. On that note, I acknowledge my dear friend and colleague, Senator Currie, for tabling this motion. I thank her for putting it on the agenda of Seanad Éireann that we do not approve of what is happening and do not approve of the unilateral action by the British Government in terms of what it seeks to do to the victims of the Troubles.

There have been victims of the Troubles on all sides. It is true that the Good Friday Agreement probably did not address matters in the detail that we would have liked in terms of what happens with a truth and reconciliation process going forward. The Good Friday Agreement, however, was extremely important at the time. It was probably as good a deal as could have been achieved to bring peace to this country, both North and South, because the people of the South wanted peace as much as the people in the North. What was achieved, both North and South, through a referendum and the overwhelming results achieved reflected the mood of the people at the time. It was not possible to achieve everything that we wanted back then. It is extremely important that we are debating this motion today, especially when one thinks of the people who have passed through these Houses. Specifically, I recall Senator Currie's dad who recently reached 82 years of age and the remarkable service that he gave to this State, both North and South. Let us think of Gordon Wilson, John Hume and, his wife, Pat Hume and what they have given. They would not be at all happy with a unilateral approach by the British Government. That is why the current generation, as the guardians of this island, have a duty to the victims to call out what is wrong, articulate their views and seek justice.

As has been said this evening, and before this debate I reflected on it, in Germany there are people in their late 90s who are being brought to court for crimes that date back to the 1940s. That is appropriate and right because the people who suffered back then deserve justice. In the same way, the people who have suffered on this island deserve justice. This House is making a very powerful statement when we can unite all parties, all political persuasions and all personalities to send the clear message that we do not agree with the approach and it is wrong. If something is wrong then it is wrong and when it is wrong, we call it out.

The Minister has the tough job of dealing with the British Government at the moment. I truly believe that he is the right person to deal with these matters because he has a calm temperament and is patient beyond belief. What he has already achieved for this country is remarkable and I have no doubt that he will achieve more. He needs the support of this House and he needs this motion to be passed unanimously to further equip him to do his job. This motion is probably the most important motion that this House has dealt with since the current Seanad was formed. I am very proud, as Senator Black and others have said, that we will unite as one behind Senator Currie and this motion because it is the right thing to do.

The next speaker is Senator McGreehan. I ask Senators to be conscious of the Order of Business agreed today allocating 120 minutes to this debate and the Minister has 15 minutes. I ask Senators to stick tightly to six minutes, as otherwise the list will not be completed.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. I commend the repeated statements of solidarity, as well as the actions, that this Government and previous Governments have taken concerning this issue.

We are here again to discuss how a foreign Government's actions affects us as a people. For generations, the it has abused this island and because of that, I find it hard to see a time when we, as a people, will not be continuously traumatised by its actions. Time and again the British Government has thrown its weight behind a decision on something that is so integral to this island and we must react. They break international agreements, talk out both sides of their mouths and we stand here to outline our anger, frustration and upset.

It is a rare day that every party on this island agrees on an issue. That just highlights the importance of the issue and the importance of creating an agreed pathway forward, which we thought we had. Over the course of more than 20 years, successive UK Governments have failed to put in place a comprehensive set of mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Stormont House Agreement of 2014 was completed after lengthy negotiations. The agreement offered a route to finally deliver on the promises made to victims and to comply with binding international legal obligations. However, despite the commitments to introduce the enabling legislation, the current UK Government has now again acted and has unilaterally abandoned agreements to which it signed up. That sounds familiar does it not? We, as Irish people, know that we cannot trust the British Government or the British establishment and in fact, we have known that since the 13th century. As they reneged on the Treaty of Limerick, the current situation really is no surprise.

The British Government’s legacy proposals are not acceptable. It is not acceptable that it wishes to hand out amnesties for those who committed murder. It is not acceptable that no individual group, organisation, or state forces or agents can be immune from prosecution. It has unilaterally decided for itself how it believes is best to "deal with the past" as it calls it. However, it is not the past; it is people's present. The people of this island, more importantly the victims and the families who live with this unknown over their heads and in their hearts, deserve to know the truth about what went on. They deserve access to justice and answers, no matter how hard those answers are to take. The truth must be given.

It was a dirty war and I understand why the British Government wants to leave behind its actions and not be accountable. The British turned a blind eye on many things when it was convenient for them to do so. In many ways they fuelled the violence by either committing it themselves with many proven examples of state-sanctioned violence and also with their many double agents. They fuelled it and facilitated so much. A paranoid person might think it is convenient for some parties and the British Government to keep people in an emotional state, upset, dealing with the past and traumatised because that keeps people at a standstill and unable to move on. That is convenient for some sectors.

Over the past 100 years, many people in this country had to grow up and grow old without their husband, wife, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles. There is no hierarchy of pain or heartache. There is no hierarchy of justice or truth. No one person's truth is worth more than another's. There are secrets and hurt around every corner in this country. Violence has caused desperate hurt. The secrets behind that violence cause endless hurt, bitterness and an inability to move on and grieve properly. The families need truth and justice. They deserve the truth and that truth must come from every side.

Being from north Louth, I am constantly reminded of Jean McConville and Tom Oliver. Somebody somewhere can give answers to the McConville family yet they do not. Somebody somewhere can give answers to the Oliver family on the vicious murder of Tom Oliver yet they do not. The British Government can provide truth and give answers yet it keeps refusing to do so. It perpetuates the cover-up of its actions. We need the truth from everyone. We need to be able to move on together no matter how hard that moving on is because we all have answers to give, including the Irish State which has not been innocent in all the trauma on this island either. We will never heal on this island with the gaping wounds of betrayal, distrust and heartache. If these secrets remain to be opened, we will all remain in constant state of trauma.

I call Senator Mullen.

Senator McDowell will lead. With the agreement of the House, we will share time.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am grateful to Senator Mullen for sharing time with me. I had intended to indicate some disagreement with the motion, but when I read the terms of the motion I decided not to do so and not to call a division on it. I wish to put some matters on the record. There is a danger that in adopting a unanimous approach, we forget the points that Senator McGreehan has made and we forget some salient facts. Every serious criminal offence committed in Northern Ireland is also an offence against the criminal law of this State since 1976. As part of the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation, the Government, of which I was Attorney General and later Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, agreed that An Garda Síochána would not investigate historical crimes committed by members of the provisional movement anywhere on this island and it has not done so. I do not believe I have deprived anybody of their civil rights or whatever by sticking to that proposition; that was part of the deal that was done.

I would say, without being rancorous in any way, Senator Ó Donnghaile has given us a series of very graphic accounts of particular massacres and other crimes that happened. Let us have it on the record of this House that the leadership of Sinn Féin came to the two governments, the Blair Government and the Ahern Government and asked for pardons for their members for the offences they had committed. They asked for criminal immunity. They got from the British Government letters of comfort, but the Southern Government took the view that there would be a decision not to prosecute. I wanted to put that on the record. Anybody who comes in here and says there must be untrammelled, retrospective investigation of criminal offences should remember the people who came on their knees to the Government demanding letters of comfort and demanding pardons for the members of their movement.

This is not simply a piece of old history. In recent weeks Members of the Oireachtas have actually stated that activities by IRA volunteers are not crimes at all. We cannot have it every way. We cannot say that one side's crimes must be prosecuted whereas the other side may wave their letters of comfort and can ignore the fact that their political leaders in Sinn Féin sought immunity from criminal prosecution.

I want to put one more thing on the record. This evening we have heard a series of harrowing examples of criminality in Northern Ireland. There are many other people, including the Breen and Buchanan families. The present Garda commissioner, Drew Harris, lost his father. There was Lord Justice Gibson and his family. We will never get a full explanation of what happened to them through the criminal process because those people who know what happened to them would be punished within their own organisation were they to go near the PSNI or the Garda Síochána to reveal the truth.

On this occasion, I will support Senator Currie's motion, but I want a little bit of fundamental honesty. This State took a view on criminal prosecutions and nobody objected to it. Sinn Féin demanded immunity for IRA members for crimes they committed and got their letters of comfort. They should not come into this House and say that they are demanding a similar rule of law for everyone. They got their letters of comfort and they never rejected them.

I will end on this point. We will never find the truth about Stakeknife, Freddie Scappaticci. We will never be told the truth, either by MI5 or by the provisional leadership. We will never find the truth about that because there is too much to lose politically on both sides in telling us what the truth is. On this occasion I want to put firmly on the record that we can masquerade in public as demanding that everybody be criminally liable no matter how long ago they committed their offences. Those people, who came on their bended knees to the Government and demanded immunity for their members as part of the Good Friday Agreement, got their letters of comfort and got the Southern Government to agree to no further prosecutions. Those people should be the last to be heard on this matter.

Senator Mullen has 49 seconds.

Like the philosopher of old who heard the fine speech that went before, I think I should just tear up my notes. It is very hard to disagree with anything Senator McDowell has said.

One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about hate crimes legislation, as is proposed, is that it in some way creates a hierarchy of victimhood, suggesting that some crimes are less serious than others and some are more serious than others. That is the danger with amnesties. The point must be made and accepted that to some degree that Rubicon was crossed when people decided to give an understanding the prosecutions would not take place with the provision of letters for those who are on the run and so on, as mentioned by Senator McDowell.

I do not have time to say any more, but I will take the opportunity to say this. I am glad that the Irish Government will be represented at that ceremony in October. A mistake was made and the Government's attendance is part of putting that right.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I support the motion before the House wholeheartedly and I commend Senator Currie on championing it and affording us the opportunity to speak on this very important issue.

When the British Government speaks about amnesty, it all sounds very philosophical and abstract.

It is a language far removed from the lived experience of people's lives and losses. It is cruelly disrespectful of the people who were subjected to the most heinous atrocities and the families who must to pick up their lives and live with these injustices all their lives.

I have the honour of knowing Kathleen Gillespie. She is Kate to us. We meet at family occasions involving my husband's and my godchildren. I know her as an activist for peace and reconciliation, a grandmother and a gifted knitter. She knitted a beautiful cardigan for my daughter when she was born. Kate has lived all her life in Derry. She was 16 when she met Patsy Gillespie and she married him when they were both 20. They lived in Bishop Street in Derry city. It was a quieter spot, that she describes as being reasonably removed from the Troubles. They had two sons and a daughter together. Patsy ran his own business, which, unfortunately, went bankrupt. To support his family and to pay his bills and his way in life, he took a job in the British Army camp, rendering him in the eyes of "some in the IRA [what they] considered [...] a “legitimate target”.

Everything changed on the night of their son's 18th birthday in October 1990. Patsy Gillespie was abducted from his home by the IRA. Kathleen and her children were told that he would be back soon while they were being held at gunpoint by masked men. In her words:

They took Patsy away that night and they left men in the house, armed and masked men, with me and my family. They stayed with us from midnight to 4 o’clock. At 4am, the phone rang and the boys that were there ran out and we heard an explosion. Afterwards, we found out what had happened. Patsy was chained to a van, to the steering wheel and the pedals, and he was instructed to drive into the army checkpoint, where the bomb was exploded by remote control.

The IRA detonated the bomb remotely, killing Patsy and five soldiers. Patsy was identified by a piece of flesh on a zip that was found on the roof of a pub a great distance from the site of the explosion. Let us be clear here. No cause justifies that type of barbarity. It is unthinkable to imagine the suffering experienced by that man in his last moments, knowing what was ahead of him but not knowing the fate of his family. Equally, that family heard the explosion that snuffed out the life of the man who was their husband and father. He was also a son, a brother and a friend. No cause justifies it and, equally, there is no objective that justifies the closing off of the opportunity to investigate it and to those vile perpetrators to justice.

Kathleen embarked on a mission of peace and reconciliation to keep herself sane and to be a role model to her children, fearing that they would be radicalised in the pursuit of vengeance for their father. She has spoken with world leaders and at workshops. She is the most extraordinary woman who pursues dialogue, peace and reconciliation. Her pursuit of peace, however, should never be mistaken as her waiving her right to justice. She has worked with the HET, a unit of the PSNI set up in September 2005 to investigate the 3,269 unsolved murders committed during the Troubles, specifically between 1968 and 1998. She worked with that team in an attempt to find out the who and the what regarding her husband’s killers. There is strong evidence of collusion and that knowledge of the atrocity in which her husband was killed was known to the intelligence services. At the winding up of the HET, Kathleen was told that there were boxes of information and evidence relating to her husband’s murderers.

She was able to give a description of the clothes worn by five of the people involved that night. Five men were arrested and the clothing she described was found in a safe house. Those five men were later released without charge, and some of those people took a case and were paid compensation for being wrongfully imprisoned. The HET was wound up in September 2014, when the PSNI was restructured due to budget cuts. That, in itself, was an amnesty by stealth. The strangulation of the funds being provided to those investigating the truth is just another means of stopping the processes. The current proposal from the British Government will protect Patsy Gillespie’s killers from prosecution and even from investigation. It is vile and unjust to leave families hanging without answers, without investigations and, ultimately, without justice. The dead matter. Their voices cry out for justice. They are not mere collateral damage for a British Government trying to buy votes in the shoring up of prosecutions in respect of the actions of the armed forces. Those are just one cohort of people that should have been brought to justice. The murdered and their families deserve resolution, investigation and prosecution of these cases. Where there is no justice, there can be no peace. I commend the motion to the House and congratulate Senator Currie.

I commend Senator Currie on tabling this motion. I am pleased to be a co-signatory, along with all my party colleagues. While I welcome this debate, it is sad that we must have it. We were all shocked on 14 July when we saw the proposals published by the British Government for a statute of limitations, which would effectively end criminal investigations and prosecutions in the case of incidents relating to the Troubles, as well as inquests and civil litigation. It has caused significant distress, disquiet and alarm right across the island, but it has impacted most deeply on the families of victims. What the British Government proposed represented a fundamental departure from the Stormont House Agreement. We cannot accept that. I thank the Minister for the firm stance he has taken on this issue, and the Taoiseach as well.

Fianna Fáil subscribes fully to the view that the Stormont House Agreement provides a balanced and comprehensive framework to address the painful legacy of the Troubles, based on the principles of truth, justice, the rule of law and reconciliation. The whole world agreed with us and still agrees with us. It is also fair to say that progress on its implementation has possibly been slow. The agreement is crucial, though, for families, victims and society in general. It was agreed to in 2014 by both Governments and the political parties after exhaustive negotiations and the agreement should now be implemented. One part of the agreement stipulated that when either Government put something forward that differed from it, that such changes would be discussed and agreed by both Governments and the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. It was accepted then, as it is now, that we can only hope to deal with these issues fairly and comprehensively through a collective approach.

Many contributors have spoken about personal experiences or of knowing victims and their families. That is what this issue is about. It is concerned above all with looking at how victims and their relatives and families have been and will be treated. They are the people who must be at the centre of this debate and anything that happens. The rule of law and the protections afforded by the ECHR must apply equally to everyone and it must be upheld. It is that principle that is at the core of the Stormont House framework. Only a joint approach that has the support of both Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland and that is in line with international human rights obligations will be workable at any level.

For the bereaved and their families, it is immaterial whether someone was killed by a soldier or a paramilitary organisation. Every family that suffered a bereavement must have access to an effective investigation and to a justice process, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. That must be the fundamental point of where we are and where we need to go. It is the case for the families mentioned, and for the Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy families, the Kingsmills families, the Dublin and Monaghan families, the Birmingham families and all the families that we represent.

If the UK Government legislates for a unilateral approach, it would be politically and legally unsustainable and would damage relationships and trust critical to the protection of the achievements of the peace process.

I have to hand a letter written by the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is a well thought out and detailed three-page letter in which the Commissioner disagrees entirely with the stance taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Westminster Government and she shares her observations in regard to the proposals. This follows the work done by her and her office on transitional justice over the last two decades, including in Northern Ireland. She expresses her strong concern about the proposals which bring the United Kingdom into conflict with its international obligations, including, notably, the European Convention on Human Rights. I will afford her the last word on this. She stated:

In conclusion, I am concerned that key elements of the command paper would not bring progress on legacy issues, but would rather represent significant steps backward. Crucially, an approach that would undermine human rights protections and would cut off avenues to justice for victims and their families, thus leading to impunity, cannot be the foundation on which transitional justice is built. Rather than upending previously agreed approaches, I urge your government to focus on taking concrete action to remove barriers to a human rights compliant implementation of such approaches, with a view to delivering justice across all communities without further delay.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I commend Senator Emer Currie on bringing forward this motion tonight. It is important to remember that in the message coming from this House, our strength is in the unity of that message. The British Government's amnesty proposals to cover up the murder of civilians in the North is breathtaking in its arrogance and intent. Not only has it united human rights organisations, political parties in Ireland, Britain, the EU and the US in opposition to these proposals, it has infuriated the relatives of those whose loved ones died at the hands of the British crown forces and its allies in the loyalist organisations, due to the language used by the British Government to defend its outrageous plan.

The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and the British Secretary of State for the North, Brandon Lewis, use the language of reconciliation and expressions of regret that, to date, all efforts to resolve the legacy issue have failed and that the amnesty cover-up will help relatives seeking justice and truth. This soft language from the mouths of Johnson and Lewis is fooling no one, and certainly not the relatives of those killed. Relatives have been at the coalface of the decades-long efforts by the British Government to block them from getting truth and justice. It has been the actions of the British Government in the courts in Belfast and elsewhere that has prevented relatives getting truth and justice.

For years, the British Government has reneged on agreements made with the Irish Government and political parties to resolve the legacy issue. In fact, the most recent and most ambitious agreement - the Stormont House Agreement - is the latest to fall foul of this duplicitous and deceitful approach by the British Government. I remind Senator McDowell that the Irish and British Governments, including all the North's political parties, negotiated the Stormont House Agreement as the way forward on legacy issues.

The agreement flowed from the Good Friday Agreement and was an international agreement predicated on international human rights obligations. Its strength was in its unity of purpose. It provided, for the first time, access to justice for victims of the conflict who had hitherto faced perfunctory investigations into the killing of their loved ones, which failed to comply with the law, and which provided de facto impunity to the crown forces.

If successful, the proposals by the British Government will end all investigations, civil cases, inquests and police ombudsman inquiries, thus denying access to justice, due process and undermining the rule of law, which were the core causes of the conflict. Reverting, as the British Government is, with these proposals to such brazen undemocratic practices will undermined public confidence in the North's criminal justice system.

The relatives of those who died in the conflict do not want to hear meaningless and sugarcoated excuses from the British Government. They simply want truth and justice, and that is available to them through the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. The British Government should honour the commitments it has made and bin its amnesty plans to protect its armed forces. Relatives have waited long enough for truth and justice.

I call on the Minister to reply to Members' contributions.

I thank Senator Currie, in particular, and other Senators for bringing this motion on the British Government’s legacy proposals to the attention of this House, and for their strong and emotive engagement on the issue.

It is clear this House shares the unanimous view of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Government that the British Government proposals cannot be the basis of a way forward on the legacy of the conflict. It is an issue which we know to be of profound personal importance to many families across this island - North and South - and has touched the lives of many more, and continues to impact us deeply as a society. I am pleased to respond, on behalf of the Government, and speak to the importance of this motion.

It has been the consistent position of the Government since 2014 that the Stormont House Agreement is the way forward in addressing the painful legacy of the Troubles. It was agreed by the political parties in Northern Ireland and both Governments after intensive negotiations, with exception of the Ulster Unionist Party which did not support it at the time and gave its reasons. It set out a fair and balanced framework for addressing these deeply sensitive and complex issues. That agreement allowed for proper independent investigations and prosecutions, where possible. It also proposed the establishment of an independent international mechanism so that people could come forward and say what they knew, without that information being used against them in court. It also allowed for oral history initiatives and acknowledgement in an effort to move reconciliation forward. Crucially, it is built on the core principles of the pursuit of justice and information recovery and support for the rule of law.

In July, the British Government published a command paper, which proposes the introduction of a general statute of limitations, an immediate end to criminal investigations, the removal of the prospect of prosecutions and the end of all judicial activity in regard to Troubles-related incidents, including current and future civil cases and inquests. It is a proposal that has caused understandable shock and upset. It is important to be absolutely clear that this is not a proposal the Irish Government can support, and this has been communicated directly to the British Government on many occasions by me and the Taoiseach.

Victims, survivors and families from all communities have spoken out in the wake of these proposals. Their message has been passionately clear: this cannot and must not be the way forward. The proposal has also been opposed across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland. This rejection was confirmed in a motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 20 July, which unanimously called on the British Government to withdraw its proposals. Families have had to wait too long for progress on this. Society has had to wait too long. It is vital that we collectively find a path forward and implement it in a way that meets the legitimate needs and expectations of victims.

We have always been clear that, where people have concerns about the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, we are ready to engage seriously to help address those concerns, but any such changes must be discussed and agreed by the parties and both Governments.

At the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 24 June, we agreed to begin, with the British Government and the Northern Irish parties, a process of intensive engagement on legacy.

This process continued through the summer and is still ongoing. It has involved meetings of all the parties with a wide range of those most affected by legacy issues, rightly prioritising the voices of victims, families and survivors. It has also met with criminal justice practitioners, civil society and human rights organisations to hear their views. It has been unmistakably clear throughout this process to date, that the British Government proposals are opposed across the board, very nearly universally, and have generated significant concern internationally.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that the proposals are "indistinguishable from a blanket unconditional amnesty for those not yet convicted" and "would undermine human rights protections and cut off avenues to justice for victims and their families". The relevant UN special rapporteurs have also expressed their concern regarding the proposals, which in their view would place the United Kingdom "in flagrant violation" of its international obligations. A recent paper published by Queen’s University also concluded that the British Government amnesty proposals are without any parallel or precedent internationally, exceeding any international model in the impunity it would offer.

Our proposal now is that the British Government needs to take all of that concern and criticism on board, here and internationally, and step back from the possibility of unilateral action. That has been my consistent message to the Secretary of State as late as today. That has been our clear position put to the British Government in all our contacts at every level, and it will continue to be. A proposal as sweeping and as problematic as this will not work if it does not have the support of all, or at least the majority, in Northern Ireland.

I have been privileged to meet with many families and victims' groups across the years. On my most recent visits to Belfast I met again with a wide range of victims' representatives. They have spoken with great dignity and determination, but also in frustration, about their search for justice for those they have lost. Sometimes that criticism, as some in this House have said, is also directed at the Irish Government, in respect of the search for truth. For many families, even when a prosecution may be an unlikely prospect, for all hope to be taken away, and for due process and rule of law to no longer apply, is an unimaginable blow. So, too, is the prospect of years more of legal challenge. Undoubtedly, that will be the direction of travel if the British Government proceeds with its proposed paper.

Every family bereaved in the conflict must have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice, regardless of the perpetrator. Many of the families that I have spoken to understand that the likelihood of prosecution is extremely slim in many cases, but they want to keep that possibility alive. Often, it is what keeps them going. That goes for the Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy families, the Kingsmill families, the Dublin and Monaghan families and the Birmingham families. It should be the case for all families.

A way forward on legacy is long overdue and urgently needed, and so we must continue to do everything we can to find a collective path through these challenges and agree a fair and comprehensive approach that can work in both jurisdictions. Those who say the Stormont House Agreement is not working and therefore needs to be scrapped also need to acknowledge that there has been no effort to set up the structures and institutions that were promised in the Stormont House Agreement to give them a chance to work. I say to this House that the approach we are taking is that while we support and endorse the Stormont House Agreement and still believe that it is the best way forward, we are certainly willing to talk about alternatives with the British Government, all political parties in Northern Ireland and victims' groups. That is what we are doing. We are trying to pursue, if necessary, a new way forward, but one that respects victims and their families first in the context in the pursuit of truth, justice and most importantly, a process of reconciliation.

As a Government, we will, and do, have a responsibility to play our part fully in that, as we committed to do at the time the Stormont House framework was agreed. In my meetings with victims and survivors groups and with political parties, I have welcomed their active work, not only in responding comprehensively to the command paper’s approach, but in putting forward practical and positive alternative approaches to deal with these issues, building on the framework of, and the principles behind, the Stormont House Agreement. My fear, if I am direct and truthful to this House, is that we will continue this process but will not be able to find an agreed consensus around a way forward that both Governments, victims' groups and political parties in Northern Ireland can support. In the absence of that agreement, we will see the British Government drawing the conclusion that no consensus can be reached and therefore there is a justification for the approach that it outlined at the start of this consultation process. I believe we all have an obligation to ensure that that does not happen. On the record, I must say that there are alternative approaches. There is no perfect approach to legacy. However, there are alternative approaches that I believe can be the basis for at least consensus in terms of a principled way forward that does not involve a statute of limitation that is seen as, and is, effectively an amnesty, but instead can perhaps provide a different but similar approach to that of the Stormont House Agreement that can pursue, in a structured and well-funded way, the truth and offer justice and the potential for prosecutions where the possibility allows in individual circumstances.

We will not advance reconciliation by moving away from a commitment to accountability or shying away from difficult truths. The motion before the Seanad today adds an important voice to the call for truth and justice, and I welcome it. I thank Members for their continued focus on this issue, and for their work on behalf of victims and survivors. In particular, I thank Senator Currie for the way in which she has approached this, in the context of approaching all of the parties in this House and indeed, Independent Members, persuading them to come on board for what is a difficult, emotive and sometimes divisive issue on which people have strong views. The idea that this is not going to divide the House is a reflection on the work, preparation and approach taken by the Senator on an extremely sensitive issue. I hope it will certainly help me in the case that I make to my colleagues and counterparts in the British Government, but in particular, the work that I intend to do with the Secretary of State, political leaders and victims' groups in Northern Ireland as we make an effort in the weeks ahead to try to find consensus in this space.

The idea that the British and Irish Governments would take a radically different approach on an issue as sensitive as legacy in the context of moving this issue forward, in my view, would be an extraordinary political failure on my behalf and that of the British Government. From my experience, when the British and Irish Governments work together and try to find consensus on controversial and difficult issues, it reduces the polarisation of politics in Northern Ireland. When we fail to do that, it has the opposite impact. That is happening in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol, legacy and a series of other issues, but not with the same consequences as Brexit and legacy issues. I hope that the efforts today of the European Commission, in particular, can perhaps change the direction of travel on the protocol and move towards a consensus-based approach where partnership delivers acceptable results that everybody can live with. Likewise, the process that is still under way which, I must say, some are starting to lose faith in, in the context of legacy, can also take a turn in the right direction in the weeks ahead. Certainly, I think this motion will help us to do that and I thank the Senators for it.

I thank the Minister for his work on this issue. As outlined in the House, it takes something extraordinary to unite all of the major political parties on this island. Senators Currie and Boyhan and I were in Belfast, as were Deputy Costello from the Green Party, Deputy Lawless, the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Deputy Howlin, the former leader of the Labour Party, and members of the DUP, the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party. For the first time ever, all of the parties on the island signed the same document. Members of the US Congress have written to the British Prime Minister. Irish Members of the European Parliament and MEPs from across the European Union have signed letters opposing this proposal. Amnesty International and the United Nations have issued letters on it, as have the European Commission and political parties in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to Raymond McCord and all the families who have fought for justice for their loved ones.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I also thank the Minister for his words of comfort and reassurance and the compassion he has shown on this issue. It matters a great deal to victims, as does his commitment not to let this go, not to give up on reaching a consensus on legacy and if there are issues with the Stormont House Agreement, to try to reach consensus on something else.

Some weeks ago, I brought my father to Offaly to view a piece of art showing the late John Hume. In the picture, John has his hand out. The artist did not mean to do this but what I got from it was that John was passing the responsibility of reconciliation on to the next generation. We in this House have a responsibility to do that. I mean it when I say that I cannot see that happening without access to truth and justice.

I thank all of the Senators who contributed to the debate, namely, Senators Ward, Conway, Black, Moynihan, Boyhan, Ó Donnghaile, Seery Kearney, Martin, O’Loughlin, McGreehan, Blaney, Mullen, McDowell and Boylan. I listened to everyone’s heartfelt personal stories. There is no doubt that it is the unilateral action of one government that has brought us to this point. Our unity tonight is incredibly important and I am very pleased to hear that the Minister feels it can help in taking this forward.

On that note, it would be a good idea to send this motion and an update to every Member of the House of Lords which will also have a say in this. Next weekend, I and Senators Ó Donnghaile and Boyhan will attend a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly at which I hope we will get a chance to speak about the matter.

Nothing about this is easy. I say that having reflected on what everyone has said tonight, the different stories they related and all of the deaths involved. When we consider the number of deaths in the Troubles, the victims and the people who have suffered, everyone has their part to play in finding truth and giving comfort to families. That is not going to be easy but it has to be done. I thank everyone for their contributions.

Question put and agreed.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.34 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 October 2021.