Sinn Féin has labelled the timing of the amendments to British legacy legislation, currently making its way through Westminster parliament, as “cynical” and said it will “slam the door shut on victims” of the conflict.
The amendments creates a cut-off date of May 2024 for an end to criminal investigations, inquests, prosecutions and other reports relating to the conflict.
The legislation was drawn up by former British PM Boris Johnson to ‘draw a line’ to halt the exposure of British war crimes in the north of Ireland. According to British officials, the amendments are intended to create “a smooth transition” between the ending of current legal and judicial processes and the creation of a ‘Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery’ which will instead carry out ‘reviews’ of conflict events.
However, it is understood a large number of campaigning relatives will not co-operate with the new body.
The Bill has been widely condemned, including by the North’s five main political parties, victims and human rights groups, the Dublin government, other parties in Ireland and in Britain, and internationally.
In a hard hitting letter prominent lawyer Kevin Winters, who represents dozens of relatives involved with ongoing inquests and those campaigning to have one opened, has urged British Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris (pictured) “to do the right thing”.
“You have a moral, never mind legal obligation to these families,” Mr Winters wrote.
“We urge you to do the right think and revise the draconian outworkings of this bill together with the latest proposed amendments issued late (on Thursday).”
Mr Winters believes that a failure to deal with people’s concerns could trigger further trauma.
“Failure to do so will cause an unparalleled inter-generational trauma and hurt which in turn will manifest itself in ever increasing agitation, legal and otherwise,” he said.
“If we fail to address these concerns as an evolving post-conflict society and tolerate this then our children will be next.”
Mr Heaton-Harris has claimed the amendments “directly address a number of key concerns raised by interested parties”.
But they were denounced by Daniel Holder of the Belfast-based human rights NGO the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), who said they were “largely just more smoke and mirrors” and do nothing to address the identified areas where the Bill is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights”.
Some provisions “would make the Bill worse”, he said. He warned the provisions would to lead to even more scheduled legacy inquests being closed down as it removes the exemption for those that have already commenced by the deadline.
Relatives for Justice said the amendments to the “Bill of Shame only makes the situation worse” and the “rights of victims and survivors will be permanently shut down, especially those engaged in inquests.”
Mark Thompson from Relatives for Justice described the revamped British government bill as “anti-victim, anti-human rights and anti-rule of law” and will have a “detrimental and traumatic impact on tens of thousands of victims and survivors”.
“The rights of victims and survivors will be permanently shut down, especially those engaged in inquests,” he said.
“The bill incentivises state tactics to delay the progress of inquests.
“At its very core this bill removes all rights and access to justice for victims.”
Speaking in connection with the ongoing Sean Brown inquest, Niall Murphy of KRW Law was also critical of the British government’s cut-off position.
“This amendment will have a transformative, and I regret to observe, a terminal effect on all legacy inquests,” he said.
“This bill represents the greatest existential threat to justice and truth recovery in our society.
“It is designed to cauterise the state’s liability and obviate the requirement of open justice before the court and is a flagrant disregard of the state’s international legal obligation, specifically with regards to article 2 of the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights).”
Last week, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted an interim resolution in which it again expressed serious concerns about the Bill’s compatibility with human rights requirements and “strongly reiterated” its call for the London government to reconsider its proposal to grant conditional amnesty to perpetrators.
There has also been strong and continuing opposition to the legislation by members on both sides of the US Congress.
Following the publication of the amendments, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said the Dublin government “needs to stand up to this unilateral action by the British government and call for the legacy mechanisms agreed at Stormont House by the two governments and political parties in 2014 to be implemented in a human rights’ compliant manner.”
He said the “cruel legacy bill” was “cynical” and was about “slamming the door shut to due process for victims of the conflict”.
The cut off amendment was “particularly cruel” as expectations had been raised among families that once inquests had been opened that they would be concluded.
“This move is cruel, heartless and unprecedented. Similarly families will be denied legacy and Police Ombudsman investigations which are similarly being closed down by May 1st next year.
“These cases will be instead transferred to a new Commission, the ICRIR, whose powers will be limited to reviews rather than Article 2 investigations as required under human rights legislation.
“Inquests which have not been concluded by May 1st next year will also be transferred to the ICRIR. This will deny victims and families the opportunity to have direct access and input into the process, deny them the right to legal teams which can cross-examine witnesses, obtain disclosure and relevant documents and provide legal advice.
“This Bill is being rushed through both Houses to become law in six to seven weeks time before Parliament goes into recess on July 26th. It is a travesty, a perversion of the legal process and with the objective of ending citizens’ rights to access due legal process.”