Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice, Senator Charles Schumer and Martin Galvin of the AOH in Washington, Wednesday.

A Day Victims Have Long Dreaded

The British Government’s controversial new law, the NI Troubles (Reconciliation & Legacy) Act, becomes live this week, Wednesday, May 1. It had previously passed through the British parliament in June 2023 and received royal ascent last September. It’s a day victims have long dreaded.

This Act shuts down all investigations, inquests, and civil litigation for thousands of victims and survivors of the conflict – it subverts victims’ rights, human rights, and rule of law norms as established as part of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

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The Act provides immunity/amnesty from prosecution principally for British soldiers and other State organizations and intelligence agencies. This impunity extends to sectarian killers within illegal paramilitaries in the employ of these agencies who were involved in collusion that resulted in hundreds of people being killed and many more hundreds being maimed and harmed.

The Bill was opposed by the British Labour Party, the official opposition in the UK, and every other political party in Britain. It is opposed by all the political parties in Ireland. The Labour Party has committed to repealing the Act should they come to power. A British general election is expected this autumn/fall. This provides some hope, but vigilance is required.

The Act contravenes the GFA and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

On February 28, following challenges brought by members of Relatives for Justice and others, the Belfast high court ruled key provisions within the Act, such as the immunity provisions, were incompatible with the UK’s legal obligations under the ECHR. Earlier this month the British lodged an appeal.

Thereafter, the case will ultimately be determined by the UK Supreme Court, which will take several years to conclude. In this context it’s also a humanitarian issue as a generation of victims, especially parents who had children killed, die off waiting on justice. However, it is not beyond this current UK government to ignore judgments of its own courts when it finds legislation unlawful, should they somehow manage to cling to power.

That’s why it was important that a challenge was mounted by the Irish government against the UK to the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR). US support for that challenge was vital as we all strive to defend the institutions, rights, and laws that flow directly from the GFA. This too will help ensure the British Labour Party fulfills its pledge.

Over this past weeks and months coroners in the North of Ireland have attempted to conclude inquests into some of the most controversial murders of the recent past involving killings by the British Army and British intelligence connivance and collusion in the loyalist paramilitary murders of Catholics. The British and its agencies have went into overdrive obfuscating and delaying matters. Running down the clock through vexatious challenges.

Several judges, sitting as coroners, have seen intelligence concerning a series of such murders by loyalists yet they have been prohibited by the British government from disclosing even a gist of this information to families within the inquests. These events have played out in secret courts behind closed doors in Belfast as families wait anxiously - all the time the clock ticking to May 1, when everything shuts down.

These latest moves have sought to further hamper coroners and courts as during one recent inquest the coroner disclosed that a number of British agents were suspected of involvement in the 1997 loyalist murder of GAA official Sean Brown. This included the principal suspect being under constant surveillance by MI5 for over a year except for the evening Mr. Brown was abducted and murdered. MI5 resumed their surveillance the day following the murder.

Faced with all these obstacles the frustration felt by some coroners has meant they have simply recognized they cannot conclude inquests instead calling for public inquiries. Families are once again left bereft. The past is ever present where the open wounds and sores run deep as the cover-ups and impunity continue in real time.

The abuse of such power and prohibition on transparent and accountable justice has been all too familiar.

The agency derived from the GFA empowered and enabled the bereaved and injured to assert their new found rights and to use the law and courts in order to obtain justice.

This was demonstrated when the inquest into eleven people killed by the British Army in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, during internment 1971, declared all the victims were unjustifiably killed. It’s the real reason this new law now exists. The Bill was announced to the UK parliament the very day the Ballymurphy verdict was delivered.

This type of publicly open justice is something the British could well do without. It flies in the face of the Tory mantra that the courts aren’t working to deliver justice and so their new law is required in order to help us all obtain justice. This is Tory arrogance laced with a healthy dose of sectarianism and anti-Irish racism for good measure. It adds insult to injury.

The facts demonstrate that inquests, civil actions, and investigations can work effectively and deliver as we have all seen in recent years including in reports delivered by Nuala O’Loan and Michael Maguire in their roles as police ombudsman.

The truth is they work too well.

The notion that families fighting for justice would give up legal processes that are lawfully compliant, contain the ability to function openly and deliver, where they are legally represented and have rights under the law, for a Commission under this new law that operates secretly and where families will not be entitled to legal representation is ludicrous. Yet, that’s the very path the British are trying to force victims down. If ever there was any doubt about the real intentions of the British government they have been laid bare yet again around gists in inquests.

Of course, they’re not on their own. Fronting the charge as their Chief Commissioner is former chief justice Sir Declan Morgan who immediately embraced the Tory Bill in all its machinations including the immunity provisions subsequently indicted and adjudicated to be unlawful by the courts.

Without as much as a blush the former RUC and PSNI assistant chief constable Peter Sheridan was next appointed to head up this new Commission’s "investigations" team. The appointment was self-serving with very obvious conflicts of interest; not least given the role of his former colleagues in RUC special branch. A cabal of the latter represent the vanguard in seeking to close down investigations, inquests and civil actions.

Regardless of whoever does the Tory bidding in fronting this Commission the powers contained within the Act reside with the British government. They retain discretion about what can and cannot be made public – who can and cannot be held to account. This makes a mockery of the term independent. It also permits for dangerous politicking around culpability.

Lord Jonathan Caine, an unelected under-secretary for the British, was the sponsor for the Bill guiding it through the legislative passage to law. This week, as families are locked out of courts, where files relating to the murders of their loved ones are hidden from them, Lord Caine unashamedly appointed a team of "experts" granting them unprecedented access to British government files for the purposes of writing a "history of the troubles" from a purely British government perspective. The intentions are all pervasive.

Despite all the PR and endless media advertisements bad law makes for bad processes and will re-traumatize victims. Already this Commission seeks to emotionally manipulate victims through empty promises it cannot deliver. The chances that anyone will engage with the Tory Commission are vanishingly rare as the reality dawns.

The Irish government tried every diplomatic channel conceivable in order to avert the damage this new law will now cause; not least in further harming victims and survivors by removing their rights to accountable justice and in actually establishing meaningful and lasting reconciliation.

Framing the title of the Bill with the word reconciliation was the very antithesis of its genuine meaning. It was a cynical attempt at gaslighting everyone. Alongside Brexit this heralded a new low in Anglo-Irish relations post the GFA.

From Johnson to Sunak the Tory government have ignored and even been publicly belligerent towards the Irish government for taking a stand in defending the GFA, human rights, victims’ rights, and the rule of law.

The British government have also ignored the chorus of voices warning of the dangers posed by enacting this law, as expressed by the European Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Special Rapporteurs, Amnesty International, including concerns raised by members of the US Congress and the Senate.

Once again we find ourselves calling upon our US family, friends, diaspora, and Congressional and Senate representatives to:

· Stand with families across Ireland in opposing this harmful law;

· To safeguard rights, justice & equality provisions as enshrined within the GFA;

· To support the Irish government’s international case against the UK;

· And to hold the British Labour Party to their commitment to repeal this Act if elected as the next UK government.

Mark Thompson is the CEO of Relatives for Justice.