April 16 2024
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‘We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re asking for rights enjoyed by citizens elsewhere in Britain’

‘We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re asking for rights enjoyed by citizens elsewhere in Britain’

‘For as long as I can remember, I have been involved in the campaign for truth about the conflict in Northern Ireland,’ says Ciaran MacAirt.

At first blush, the man on my computer screen is a picture of ordinariness, with family photographs lined up on the bookshelves behind him. But MacAirt, whose grandmother was one of the 15 civilians killed during the McGurk’s Bar bombing in 1971, has been instrumental in coordinating other bereaved relatives to challenge the British government’s response to the legacy of The Troubles. ‘Around 7,000 people took part in our first march in 2018; these were mainly victims and survivors, but also representatives from across civil society who’d also been affected, including politicians, academics, NGOs and local community leaders,’ he tells me.

Last month, members of the Time for Truth campaign, which came about as a result of the coalition built by victims and survivors, undertook yet another demonstration outside of Belfast City Hall, demanding that the UK Government scrap the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconcilliation) Bill. As reported on The Justice Gap, Natasha Butler (whose grandfather was shot by soldiers in West Belfast in 1972) described the proposed legislation as a ‘bill of shame [which] will provide an amnesty for British state forces and deny our families basic legal rights to an inquest, an independent investigation and civil actions’. Addressing the demonstrators, she concluded that the new laws would be ‘a slap in the face to victims as it will prioritise the demands of the British military lobby over the legal rights of victims of state violence.’

Though the Legacy Bill has not yet received royal assent, it has already passed through the House of Commons and is currently being debated in the House of Lords. Its stated purpose is to ‘promote reconciliation by establishing an Independent Commission for Reconcilliation and Information Recovery… and providing for experiences to be recorded and preserved and for events to be studied and memorialised’. Section 18, in its current form, would allow for accused persons to be granted immunity from prosecution for offences committed during the conflict, whilst Part 3 of the Bill would also place restrictions on proceedings taking place outside of the formal truth recovery process.

Protest would typically be the last thing on the minds of bereaved relatives, many of whom now have professional responsibilities and families of their own. But, according to MacAirt, following the failure to properly resource the coronial inquests system and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, affected parties have few places to turn. ‘A lot of our family members are old, and these mechanisms could be used by families to achieve some form of justice in their lifetime.’

MacAirt argues that the British government have taken steps to avoid accountability for any wrongdoing during the conflict since the publication of the Stormont House Agreement in 2014. ‘I say there is a very clear three-pronged attack: denial, delay and death. That’s as simple as I can put it.’ The Legacy Bill, he says, is an attempt to impede upon the access of relatives to due process of the law.

‘We’re not asking for any special treatment and we’re not asking to be treated differently from anyone else. We’re simply asking for a right enjoyed by ordinary citizens elsewhere in Britain.’

John Teggart, whose father Daniel died during the 1971 Ballymurphy shootings, has first-hand experience of how equal access to justice is essential to establishing – and correcting – the historical record on conflict. Backed by Michael Mansfield KC, Teggart gave evidence at the inquest which found that the ten civilians killed at Ballymurphy were ‘entirely innocent’, and that the use of lethal force by the British Army was ‘not justified’.

‘We have proven that these mechanisms do work,’ he says, criticising claims by the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis that previous legacy cases have fed ‘a pernicious and distorted view of the past, promoted and peddled by those with a vested interest in presenting the British state as the aggressor’. ‘When we went into court, right up until the day of the judgement, all our loved ones, including a priest, a mother of eight and my dad as well, were described as gunmen and gunwomen who were part of the IRA’.

The perceived independence of inquests and their emphasis on fact-finding, says Teggart, meant that individuals had confidence in ascertaining the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their relatives during the conflict. ‘Our initial goal was on disclosure, to get more evidence on state involvement in the shooting.’ Teggart believes that the provisions of the new Legacy Bill would affect a large cross-section of affected communities in Northern Ireland, regardless of their political or ideological leanings. He points out that proposals for a Historical Investigations Unit in the Stormont House Agreement were made in addition to recommendations that other legal avenues received adequate and sufficient funding. ‘Some people would be glad for oral history, some people want prosecutions, some people just want the truth, and some people just want others to tell them what exactly happened.’

‘Why close down something if there’s evidence that it’s working?’.

Truth and Justice?
After the Legacy Bill was proposed during the State Opening of Parliament last year, a group of prominent legal professionals, academics and non-governmental organisations signed an open letter which described the move as appearing ‘to be driven primarily by a desire for impunity for the security forces’. The letter drew attention to the fact that legacy practitioners and other official independent investigators had long experienced obstruction in their access to records which could reveal evidence of gross human rights violations. In light of such practices, the letter concluded that it was ‘highly unlikely that non-state actors [would] engage with a commission that is unilaterally imposed and controlled by one party in the conflict… the proposed mechanism would appear to be designed as a perfect vehicle to prevent the truth from arising’.

Louise Mallinder, a Professor of Law at Queen’s University Belfast and one of the signatories of the letter, is in no doubt that the Legacy Bill poses grave risks for the rights of victims and survivors to truth and access to justice for serious human rights violations committed during the Troubles. ‘The immunity processes appear to be structured in such a way that it may yield no new information for families, and it is unclear at present whether any offenders would engage with the process.’

‘Through barring victims’ access to civil and coronial courts, the Legacy Bill clearly stands to fall far short of established rule of law standards in the UK. Given that direct access to the courts is also a commitment under the Good Friday Agreement 1998, the UK will also be in violation of that agreement.’

At present, legacy investigations are carried out by the coronial inquest system, the civil courts, the Office of the Police Ombudsmen, and the police. Mallinder argues that, despite concerns about these institutions being hampered by threats to their independence, limited resourcing or state unwillingness to disclose information, ‘they nonetheless have the powers to conduct investigations that meet requirements under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights – namely that investigations are independent, prompt, transparent and effective.’

‘Given that many cases will be subject only to reviews rather than full investigations, it seems unlikely that the Article 2 standards for effective investigations will be met’ by the Legacy Bill.

MacAirt believes that there is a direct correlation between the campaigning efforts of affected communities in Northern Ireland and attempts by the government to close existing routes towards legal accountability. ‘We rely on the skills and support of ordinary people on the street. Following the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions, we were able to organise a mass protest right across the thirty-two counties of Ireland to show the government that we were still active.’

‘The only reason that the British government have tried to enact this pernicious legislation is because families have fought for the truth for as long as they have. We have done it to such an extent that the only thing they can do is deny us access to the law’.