Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 2 December 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Engagement with Justice for the Forgotten
I welcome the representatives from Justice for the Forgotten, Ms Margaret Urwin and Mr. Alan Brecknell. Before I invite them to make their opening statements, I will make two points. If a vote is called in the Dáil, I will be required to adjourn the meeting to allow members of the committee who are Members of the Dáil to attend that vote. We are not in control of when that might happen but it will be indicated by the ringing of a bell. The committee will resume immediately after the vote. I just wanted to make people aware that that might happen.
I will now read the notice regarding privilege, which is universal to all our meetings. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given and should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech which might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or the entity.
I now invite Ms Margaret Urwin to make her opening statement, to be followed by Mr. Alan Brecknell.
Ms Margaret Urwin:
I thank the Chairman. The committee has kindly invited us to discuss our work with it. I will make a brief opening statement to set the context around our discussions.
At present the main focus of work for Justice for the Forgotten is Operation Denton, which is the review by Mr. Jon Boutcher, the former Chief Constable of Bedfordshire in England, into the Glenanne series of murders. Regarding those we represent, these include the Dublin-Monaghan bombings in 1974, the Dundalk bombing in 1975, the Castleblayney bombing in 1976 and the murder of John Francis Green in 1975, which all occurred in this jurisdiction. We also represent the families of the members of the Miami Showband murders, which took place in Northern Ireland in 1975.
Not all of the cases whose families we support come under the Operation Denton umbrella so they are, unfortunately, left in a bit of a limbo situation. With regard to the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, we are still pursuing a civil case in the High Court in Belfast. Other cases await a decision on the admissibility issue in this case. The Glenanne series of cases is also being investigated by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
Mr. Boutcher and his team have now been in contact with the vast majority our family members and survivors. They have taken detailed statements from them on the impact on their lives after the loss of their loved ones and the lasting effects of the injuries sustained by the survivors.
While Covid has impacted considerably on the work of Operation Denton, nevertheless good progress is being made and they have received and are continuing to receive good co-operation from the PSNI and the relevant entities in Britain. Unfortunately, there has been a problem in gaining access to the Garda files. Mr. Boutcher was advised that the Garda Commissioner had received legal advice that the material could not be handed over because Operation Denton is essentially a review and not an investigation.
We had a meeting with senior officials from the Department of Justice and the Department of Foreign Affairs this week. Following that meeting, we are hopeful that the problem can be resolved. The Department of Justice is seeking legal advice on the issue from the Attorney General. If the advice from the Attorney General is that the files cannot be made available under current legislation, then the Department has committed to having the necessary new legislation passed by the Oireachtas and they have agreed to seek priority for such legislation to be enacted.
Mr. Boutcher has liaised with the Garda Commissioner on this issue since last April and we believe it should have been resolved months ago. We have impressed upon the officials with whom we met the urgency of this matter. All of the lives lost were lost almost half a century ago and family members are dying every year. It is ironic that now the families have the best chance of learning the truth as to why their loved ones were mown down by no-warning bombs that the delay in providing information has come from so close to home. Another critical reason for haste is that the British Government may very soon introduce legislation in Westminster, which will close down all avenues to truth and justice for all victims. Mr. Brecknell will have a lot to say about that.
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address this important committee at this difficult time in terms of dealing with legacy issues of the past and discussing the other important issues concerning the Good Friday Agreement.
The Pat Finucane Centre, PFC, as many members will know, offers advocacy support to victims and survivors of the conflict who wish to engage with any organisation that deals with legacy concerns. In the past these have included the RUC, the serious crime review team of the PSNI, the Historical Enquiries Team, the legacy investigation branch of the PSNI, the coronial service and the Office of the Police Ombudsman, as well as Operation Kenova and Operation Denton, which are under the command of Mr. Jon Boutcher. We also attend inquests and criminal trials to support families through these difficult processes.
Currently, the most important issue facing victims and survivors is the British Government's proposals, as released through the command paper entitled Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past, which was issued on 14 July 2021. The one thing that these proposals will not do is address the legacy of the past.
As all members will be aware, these proposals as they currently stand will stop all investigations, coronial inquests and civil actions, which is completely unacceptable to the Pat Finucane Centre and the families we represent. However, probably the most outrageous proposal is a basic amnesty for all those involved in the violent conflict. The British Government can call the proposal what they like but in most fair-minded people's eyes it is an amnesty. It is interesting to note that legal academics in Queen’s University Belfast and the Committee on the Administration of Justice, which is in Belfast, in a response to the command paper stated “the proposed UK amnesty is Pinochet plus”.
It should also be noted that it is not just victims and survivors and their advocates who oppose these proposals. Unusually, the proposals have united in opposition all five political parties at Stormont even if that is for different reasons. Other opponents of the proposals are the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights and two United Nations special rapporteurs.
It should be remembered that these proposals have their origin in an ill-conceived Conservative Party manifesto promise to stop the so-called witch-hunt against veterans who served in Northern Ireland. There is no evidence to support the claim that there was a witch-hunt against the veterans. On the contrary, it should be remembered that only four soldiers were ever convicted of murder. They were all released as a result of the Queen's pardon and returned to serve in their regiments.
The command paper makes the unsubstantiated and erroneous claim that members of the security forces “were responsible for around 10% of Troubles-related deaths - the vast majority of which were lawful”. There are a number of issues around this statement. First, the figure takes no account of those killed through the collusive acts of members of the security forces. The command paper also claims that “the vast majority” of these killings were legal. This is a remarkable claim given that such a small number of members of the security forces were ever brought to trial. Therefore, how can they be judged to have been legal?
In most cases there was little or no investigation. In a recent trial of two soldiers for the killing of Mr. Joe McCann in Belfast in 1972, the presiding judge when acquitting the soldiers said that “until late 1973, an understanding was in place between the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] and the Army whereby the RUC did not arrest and question, or even take witness statements from, soldiers involved in shootings such as this one”. He went on to say: “This appalling practice was designed, at least in part, to protect soldiers from being prosecuted and in very large measure it succeeded.”
For clarification purposes the Pat Finucane Centre asked the Northern Ireland Office, NIO, what information the office held, including the titles of documents and papers, that supports the claim that the “vast majority” of Troubles-related deaths at the hands of the security forces were lawful. The reply provided stated:
I can confirm that the Northern Ireland Office does not hold any records that relate to the statement to which you refer. The statement in Command Paper 498, published 14 July, is based on publicly available information that shows that, of the estimated 10% of deaths caused by the security forces during the Troubles, a very small number have been found to be unlawful.
Again, it should be remembered that only a small number of cases came before the courts and, therefore, only a small number could have been "found to have been lawful".
In conclusion, I will reiterate the PFC’s opposition to these proposals on the basis that all victims and survivors have a right to truth and justice and that these proposals will remove this right and do nothing to establish the true nature of the recent conflict or further reconciliation, one of the stated aims of the proposals.
Gabhaim buíochas le Margaret Urwin agus Alan Brecknell as an gcur i láthair sin. We greatly appreciate their presentation and the work they have done over the years in this regard. I met the Taoiseach this week along with the-----
I want to stick to what we agreed. I appreciate the Deputy being helpful in his suggestion. The rotation is Fine Gael followed by Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, the SDLP, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, Independents, Aontú, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Green Party, which we agreed earlier. I call on the Fine Gael members, Senator Currie and then Deputy Carroll MacNeill.
I welcome Mr. Brecknell and Ms Urwin for coming before the committee. I note from the outset that I am completely against any impediment to victims and families having access to truth and justice. The command paper from July is hugely offensive and represents a lockdown on the rule of law because it is not just about prosecutions but is also about all investigations, all civil cases and any access to the truth. That, to me, is hugely offensive. What does it say about our society? What does it say about the rule of law and respect for the rule of law? What does it say to people who engage in paramilitarism? What does it say about reconciliation? I feel very strongly about this. As I have said frequently in this forum, I am totally against the legacy proposals that have come from the British Government. I know there is unity on this island in relation to that. For the first time, all parties on the island - North and South - are completely opposed to these proposals. Any opportunity we have, we should send that message out loud and clear from Dublin, Belfast, London, Westminster or from wherever. The only party in favour of this is the Tory party. It is a betrayal of victims and a lockdown on their hope. Let there be no confusion or doubt about where I stand on this issue.
I would like Ms Urwin to go through her dealings in recent weeks with the Department of Foreign Affairs and about getting access to the information for Jon Boutcher. I know it is Operation Denton, as he obviously is running many investigations at present. Will Ms Urwin tell me more about that and how she has found the investigation? When I speak to other victims' groups, they have found that it has been a positive experience, as much as it can be, with Jon Boutcher. At what stage is she at now? It would be great if she could provide more information on that.
Ms Margaret Urwin:
All the feedback we have had from our family members who have engaged fully with Jon Boutcher and his team, be that through Zoom or more recently in person, has been incredibly positive. Everybody is very happy with the investigation and its progress. As I said, it has been somewhat held up because of Covid. Nevertheless, most of the team were able to do quite a lot of work from their homes during lockdown and so on. It has been very positive.
Our dealings have been mostly with the Department of Justice. We also met senior officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs this week. We are hopeful that it will be resolved. The issue seems to have arisen because the title of this is a "review" rather than a "criminal investigation", and there seems to be a block on providing information because of that description. As far as we are concerned, there is very little difference between the review and a criminal investigation. If evidence is found of criminal wrongdoing against any individual, Mr. Boutcher will bring that to the notice of the Chief Constable of the PSNI in Northern Ireland who can take it further. In our opinion, there is not that much difference. The title that was given by the High Court in Belfast, that ordered this review. That is what the judge in the Barnard case called it in the Barnard judgment, which led to the setting up of Operation Denton.
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
Can I come in and reiterate some of what Ms Urwin said? In relation to the families who have met with Jon Boutcher personally and with his teams north of the Border, they all come across as being highly professional and they have done everything in a victim-centred way, which proves this process can be done effectively and in a way that is appropriate. I do not want to put a dampener on Mr. Boutcher's work to date but we have not seen any product from it, even from the Kenova process as of yet. That is not to say that there will not be. I am simply putting it out there that this is an issue.
One of the big concerns we have with Operation Denton is that it possibly will be 18 months to two years before he will be finished and in a position to finalise a report. It is very important, no matter what happens regarding the legacy proposals put forward by London, that the pressure is brought to bear and that the processes - this may sound really selfish - should be allowed to finish. The time and effort his team have put in to this, and the time and effort victims and survivors have put in working with his team needs to be acknowledged. That report needs to be given to the families. If anything constructive is to come from this meeting today, we would call on the committee to do all it can to ensure, whatever happens going forward, Jon Boutcher is given the time to complete this report for these families. It was promised to them by the Historical Enquiries Team more than ten years ago. That is my call on the committee: I ask that members do anything they can to ensure that report is given to those families as soon as it possibly can be and that it is not stymied in some way.
Before you do, I will take Deputy Carroll MacNeill as well as the other Fine Gael member present. There are seven or eight minutes left in the slot. Deputy Carroll MacNeill can ask her questions and then we will let Senator Currie back in.
I wish to ask one clarifying question to better understand the challenge presented by Ms Urwin between the criminal investigation and the review.
I am looking for more information. Can the witnesses provide detail on what they say is the issue? Obviously, we can follow up with the Department of Justice if legislative change is necessary? Will Ms Urwin describe that in a bit more detail?
Ms Margaret Urwin:
It is difficult because we are not lawyers. That is what we have been told. We have been told the issue is that they are not sure how information would be managed or passed over. What the officials in the Department of Justice are saying is that they are not sure how such information might be managed by the Boutcher team, so they are seeking clarification from the Attorney General. We understand there is a request for advice from the Attorney General and it is to go to the Attorney General in the next few days. It is expected it will go early next week, we would hope, so the Attorney General can respond to that. We want know whether the current legislation is sufficient to enable them to share all the information they have. That is about as much as we know, to be honest. It seems to be a problem with the type of investigation that it is, in that it is actually a review and not a criminal investigation.
I understand that and I can understand the Department's perspective how this review differs. One of the problems is how the information is treated and handled, and what possible implications there are from that for the security of any further prosecutions or the security of anything that comes out of it. We can follow that up and look for the resolution and, if legislative change is necessary, we can certainly follow that up. I want to ask about the timing. How long has this been highlighted to Justice for the Forgotten as an issue?
Ms Margaret Urwin:
As far as we were concerned, everything was going very smoothly but apparently it started last April. We were made aware several months ago that Mr. Boutcher was having difficulty getting files from the Garda Commissioner. Our understanding is that the Department of Justice only recently got involved and that is why we sought a meeting with Department of Justice officials. That is where we are at the moment. We feel it should have been resolved months ago because, as I said, it has been ongoing with the Garda since last April.
Thank you. I want to support Senator Currie on what she has said on the treatment of legacy issues and on the proposal from the British Government. We are all very much on the same page in that regard. I might hand back to Senator Currie at this point.
Deputy Carroll MacNeill has probed on questions that I was going to ask in order to try to understand this. We definitely need to follow up to make sure there are not barriers for Justice for the Forgotten and that Jon Boutcher is getting the information that he requires. I want to go back to what Mr. Brecknell said about who is affected by the command paper. He rightly points out that these are families that are seeking information. We had more than 50 different files before the Belfast High Court in regard to inquests and they need to proceed, and there are the Stakeknife files and that needs to proceed. I would also point out that there can be breakthrough cases, as we have seen recently. I do not want to see those families left behind. For me, all of the routes to justice should be available to people.
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
I agree with the Senator. From our perspective, this is not just about the families we represent; it is about the wider victim and survivor community out there. We need to take a victim-focused approach to this. People have waited over 50 years for information. We have rightly seen the Ballymurphy inquest recently where the whole narrative of those three or four days is now different from what was known as the narrative of the past and the story from the past. It goes to prove that these things can happen and it goes to prove how important it is. Again, I make the point that it is not just about the families we represent as it is about the bigger victim and survivor community. It is also about society. We need to know what happened here and we need to know why it happened. We need to ensure it does not happen again. We need to ensure we do not pass the trauma and the pain of the past 30 years on to another generation and maybe a generation after that. Whether the British Government likes it or not, this is not going away. It is getting passed on to people and younger people are taking up the fight for their families. That has to be realised.
Can we agree as a committee that we will write to the Minister for Justice seeking a report on this issue in support of what the families have said, in particular given Ms Urwin said in her address that they have committed to seeking priority for legislation if it is needed, and to look for reassurance on that issue? Do we agree that would be a reasonable thing to do and that we would support their argument in this case? Agreed.
We move to Sinn Féin. I understand Deputy Pauline Tully and Mr. John Finucane will be making the contributions. I call Deputy Tully.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their contributions on what is a very important matter. I want to start with what is a local issue for me. Being from Cavan, I have a keen interest in seeking justice for the families of those killed in the Belturbet bombing and there were also people injured in Clones and Pettigo on the same day. We assume that was organised and carried out by the same people. A recent documentary highlighted how new information has been unearthed in the British Ministry of Justice and that there has been collusion between the British army, a unionist politician and some loyalist paramilitaries in particular in regard to blowing up Aghalane Bridge. There was also a problem in gaining access to some of the Garda files.
Are the Belturbet, Pettigo and Clones bombs part of Operation Denton or are they one of the cases awaiting decision on admissibility? If that is the case, do we have a time for that or are there impediments that explain why that is not progressing? If not, are there other avenues open to those who are seeking access to the truth?
On a question to Ms Urwin, it is two and a half years since she appeared before the committee in June 2019. Recommendations from Dr. Thomas Leahy were discussed at the time. Can I have a progress report on any recommendations that were made and whether they were implemented? At that time, there was a recommendation that the Irish Government set up a parallel historical investigations unit. There were also recommendations that outstanding issues from the Barron, McEntee and Smithwick reports should be implemented, although I do not know if that has happened. It was also recommended that a victims commissioner be reappointed and that a commission of inquiry into Seamus Ludlow’s murder be held, and I know that has not happened. At that time, a committee had been established to consider the release of files from the Department of Justice relating to British and loyalist violence but that committee was suspended in 2009. Has that committee been re-established?
Ms Margaret Urwin:
I thank the Deputy, who asks many very important questions. I will deal with Belturbet first. Unfortunately, Belturbet is one of the cases that I mentioned in the opening statement that are in a limbo situation like other cases that we have, as there are a number of cases that are not part of Operation Denton. The documentary has been shown twice on RTÉ. Since it was shown, I have been in meetings with the families and with the Garda in Monaghan about this. I said that we were making some progress initially. I sent somebody forward who thought they might have some information to provide and that person did go and make a statement to gardaí.
I have had quite a lot of communications with the superintendent since then. Unfortunately, I have not heard anything in many weeks, so I am not sure what is happening with the case. It could be one of the civil cases, but we will have to find out first whether the Dublin and Monaghan bombings will be admissible in the High Court in Belfast, in terms of both jurisdiction and time limits. The matter will again come before the court later this month. Nothing can happen with the other cases because there is no point in putting forward our case if a decision is made by the court that the Dublin and Monaghan case is not admissible. That is where that stands, unfortunately, with many other cases.
I appeared before the committee with Thomas Leahy in 2019, when he made many recommendations. To the best of my knowledge, none of those recommendations has been implemented. I certainly have not been informed if they have been. There was to be a parallel historical investigations unit, HIU, under the Stormont House Agreement, but the British Government has reneged on that, as Mr. Brecknell set out. The Stormont House Agreement was agreed to by both Governments and all political parties in Northern Ireland apart from the Ulster Unionist Party in December 2014. It guaranteed a HIU for the North as well as other entities such as the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, ICIR, the oral history archive and so on. Unfortunately, it was not intended to have a branch of the HIU or a separate HIU here. We held meetings about it with the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and they seemed to set their faces against setting up a parallel HIU in this jurisdiction. It was recommended by Mr. Leahy as well, but that is kind of immaterial now because the British Government has reneged on the Stormont House Agreement.
There was a question about other recommendations Mr. Leahy made. As far as I know, none of them has been implemented. I certainly have not been made aware if they have been.
Mr. John Finucane:
It is good to see Ms Urwin and Mr. Brecknell, who are both very welcome. I wanted to touch on the updated position on the command paper. Our guests may be aware that since the command paper was published, there has been what has been accurately referred to as a sham process of engagement - I use that term loosely - since the summer. It came to a head this week when the Secretary of State called a meeting of the party leaders where he heard unanimously the opposition all five Executive parties have to the command paper as it stands. The contempt that was shown to the political parties in that meeting is one thing, but it pales into insignificance when we step back and see the contempt being shown to our guests' families and other families throughout society. As was referred to, this is a fairly indiscriminate attack on anybody's right to access truth and justice. What was said at the meeting was that the command paper would proceed regardless. The Minister for Foreign Affairs raised that with the Secretary of State at today's British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, but we all wait to see what will be in the legislation when it is published.
On the impact of the legislation, our guests mentioned that there are proceedings in the High Court and a complaint before the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. What will be the impact, not just practically on the cases but also on the families our guests represent? While there has been reference to practical steps the Government could take to help facilitate information retrieval, what do our guests ask this committee and the Government to do in the face of the legislation when it becomes public?
This is important when we talk about Jon Boutcher's operation. Jon Boutcher does not own the reports, although if I am incorrect, our guests might say so. As I understand it, his information will be passed to the chief constable. Even if he has all paths clear to access information, nobody will see that unless the chief constable so decides to publish. We need to have some degree of caution about the accessing of information being the result in itself. The result, for me, is the publication and the implementation of whatever recommendations are in that. Our guests might comment on that as well.
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
On the final comment, relating to the status of the report, it was ordered by the courts in Belfast. Mr. Finucane is correct in saying Jon Boutcher will report to the chief constable. This may be me looking at things through rose-tinted glasses, but I think it will be quite difficult for any chief constable not to provide the report. As for what the report will look like at the end of the day, there is a question as to whether the report Jon Boutcher provides to the chief constable will be the same as the one that becomes public. We have seen in the past when the Retired Police Officers Association and others in the North have tried to prevent information being published, especially in regard to the police ombudsman’s office.
From our perspective, we will fight to ensure the whole way along that whatever information is provided to Jon Boutcher is used in the appropriate way and finds its way into the report he provides. At that stage, unfortunately, it will again be up to the families and their advocates to fight to ensure that information becomes public. For various reasons, no one seems to want to make information public about what happened here, and I have my own suspicions about the reasons for that. I think we can all agree it was a dirty war. Bad and evil things were done on all sides. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, until we start looking at this, putting that information out there and getting an understanding of what happened, why it happened and why it should never happen again, it will be a difficult time. Some very difficult conversations will have to be had for a few years. People will have to admit to difficult things they have done. Until we get to that place, we will just continue on the same roads, where myths and lies get passed from one generation to the next and things get justified for completely unjustifiable reasons.
On the impact on the families, God knows when the police ombudsman's report will appear, to be honest. It has been at the police ombudsman’s office for probably eight years. A number of months ago, we were told that the investigative part was nearing completion and that it would go to Marie Anderson for her to write up the report and make it public. We all know there are huge issues with the ombudsman’s office relating to resources and getting reports made public and published. Every time we hear a report is about to be published, something else seems to happen that knocks it back, perhaps because it has to be sent to people who are mentioned in the report for them to comment, quite rightly so. It slows down the whole process.
We need to look at the demographic of the people we are dealing with. More than half of the killings happened before 1976.
On the age demographic, we are talking about people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. My mother is 88. I attended the funeral of an 88-year-old woman from the same village this morning and I will have to attend the funeral of a 90-year-old person tomorrow morning. My point is about the age profile of the people who are the victims and survivors. They need to have answers before they pass on. The number of funerals I have attended in recent years for people we worked with is heartbreaking. I hope this committee can put pressure on the Irish Government, the British Government and the political parties to say that enough is enough. It will be difficult, but we must do it.
Ms Margaret Urwin:
I agree with what Mr. Brecknell said about the age profile of the families that we represent. All the cases I read out are from the 1970s. We have one case from the 1990s, but the vast majority our cases are from the 1970s and the Operation Denton cases, of course, are all from the 1970s. Every year family members die. Several of them died in the last couple of years. It is urgent to get truth and justice for those families before they die.
Deputy Tully asked another question I did not answer about the body of historians that Senator McDowell set up when he was Minister for Justice and Equality. It seems to have been disbanded in 2009 and was never set up again. That was something we were promised during Mr. Justice Barron's committee hearings after the Barron reports were published. That was just quietly dropped in 2009.
I join other members in welcoming Ms Urwin and Mr. Brecknell and compliment them on their ongoing work. We have had considerable engagement over the years, particularly with Ms Urwin and more latterly with Mr. Brecknell and their work is very important. Three Dáil motions were passed unanimously in 2008, 2011 and 2016 calling on the British Government to provide an independent international judicial person with access to all papers and files pertaining to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974. Importantly, those motions also requested access to the papers relating to the Dublin bombings of 1972 and 1973, the bombing of Kay's Tavern in Dundalk and the murder of Seamus Ludlow outside Dundalk.
In her initial comments, Ms Urwin mentioned that people are getting older and sadly family members have been passing away. I take the opportunity to pass on to the Ludlow family my sincere sympathy on the recent passing of Kevin, a brother of Seamus. I had many conversations with Kevin over the years and it was always a matter of serious grief to him and other family members that they never got the truth about the murder of their beloved brother. The age profile of the individuals who have not seen truth or justice in respect of the heinous crimes inflicted on their family members is a matter of serious concern to us all.
It is deplorable that the British Government continues to ignore the requests of the Parliament of a sovereign state. It has not even replied to the request to give access to those papers to an independent international legal person. I spoke in the debate on each of those motions when they were before this House in 2008, 2011 and 2016. They were very comprehensive motions and were very reasonable. They put forward the case to get access to papers so that people could get information and hopefully get to the truth. We need to discuss, either publicly or in private, whether we need to renew such a motion at this time. There may be a more appropriate time to have a motion. I am sure that all parties and groupings in this House would willingly support an appropriate motion on the lines of the motions passed unanimously in the past.
I refer to the Belturbet bombings of December 1972. Sadly, Geraldine O'Reilly from Belturbet and Patrick Stanley from Clara, County Offaly, were killed on that night. We will soon reach the 49th anniversary of that heinous crime and again nobody has been brought to justice. Again, I refer to the work of Professor Edmund Burke of the University of Nottingham who through his research of British state papers uncovered clear collusion between the state forces and the UVF in bringing that bomb to Belturbet that night. That information became available to me and I put it on the record of the Dáil in September 2020. Subsequently a documentary on RTÉ carried that information. I commend the work of Professor Burke and his colleagues at the University of Nottingham.
After I put that information on the record of the Dáil, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, referred that information to the Garda authorities for them to pursue. The last correspondence I had on that matter indicated that the Garda was still investigating the issue. It is not getting easier as every day goes by. Along with others, I would be very anxious that the atrocity in Belturbet would be kept foremost in the inquiries which need to continue.
Ms Urwin referred to the civil court case ongoing in Belfast. What is the importance of that case? What does she hope will be achieved through that court case?
Ms Margaret Urwin:
Regarding the motions passed by Dáil Éireann in 2008, 2011 and 2016, the Boucher team has told us that it is getting complete co-operation concerning the cases included in Operation Denton from all those entities that have such information - the PSNI, the Ministry of Defence in London, MI5, etc. - which is very positive. If that happens, the motions might be a bit redundant in respect of those cases. Of course however, as the Deputy correctly said, the Dublin bombings of 1972 and 1973 and the Belturbet bombing are not included in Operation Denton. Therefore, from the perspective of those cases, the motions are still valid.
As I already mentioned, I was in constant contact with the Garda superintendent in Monaghan about the Belturbet case in the aftermath of the showing of the documentary. I am also in constant contact with Ed Burke in Nottingham University who has been very helpful in looking at this case and other cases. As I said, we seem to have reached a hiatus regarding Belturbet. I think it has been passed upstairs now and I do not know what is happening. I have not had any contact in many weeks. I will have to follow up on that again.
Regarding the Dublin-Monaghan civil case, the general idea of a civil case is to get compensation, but that is not why our families are taking the case. Mainly, they are taking it to try to get more information. Believe it or not, this civil case has been going on since 2014 and a decision has still not been made regarding its admissibility. As I said, it is coming up again and we are trying to get the other side's case struck out because it has not responded to our statement of claim which was submitted about 14 or 15 months ago. The Crown Solicitor’s Office has not responded, so we are trying to get permission to proceed with this case and to have it fully heard in the new year, hopefully. We will not know about that for a while yet I presume.
I will not take all the time in case my colleagues come in later and the Chair might be able to facilitate them. The British grand notion of a statute of limitations, which is an amnesty for murderers and criminals, be they state forces or paramilitaries, is totally unacceptable. That has been strongly reinforced by the Government here, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The clear message is that such an amnesty is not acceptable. It would shut down for ever any possible avenue to truth and justice for victims and their families. It is utterly deplorable that any government could entertain the idea of introducing such a mechanism to shut off all inquiries and avenues that might lead to truth and justice. We are all well aware that many of the heinous crimes we are talking about were committed almost half a century ago. In that context, it will never be easy to get truth and justice for the families. The idea, however, of ever shutting off entirely any possibility of reaching truth or justice is utterly deplorable and that is the message that we as an Oireachtas will continue to make very clear to the British Government and authorities.
Ms Claire Hanna:
I thank the witnesses for their presentation and for laying out where we are and the issues we are dealing with. Like everyone on the committee, it is striking and useful that there is absolute unanimity, as Senator Currie said, across all the parties on the island against these proposals for all the reasons outlined. The proposals will not bring people the truth let alone justice, they will not further reconciliation and they will also not counter some of the myths and romanticism still existing concerning violence and the use of violence. That is an important aspect as we enter more turbulent and polarised times. I refer to not having drained that wound regarding political violence.
Mr. Brecknell put it well and laid out the situation honestly when he said that, effectively, this conversation about legacy issues is going to get worse before it gets better. We will all probably have to realise that it is going to be a traumatic few years for society, not least for the victims and people like the witnesses who have the most personal and acute experiences. We are going to hear things which will be challenging for everybody but we just cannot skip this step. There is no question of a society healing and changing if we try to suppress and bury these things. As many academics and others have said, there are cases littered around the world of societies that have tried to do that and where such attempts have failed. The intergenerational nature of the witnesses' group indicates that at a personal level people are not just going to accept that if Boris Johnson says they should forget about these cases they should just forget about it. That will also not happen at a societal level.
We have discussed things that we can do as a committee and the Oireachtas response to this situation. From the perspective of the SDLP, as will be known, we are on the same page and have been. We are working, to the extent that we can, to try to assemble the cross-party opposition in Westminster to these proposals. As will be known from the contributions of some of the representatives of the other groups, that is focusing on the House of Lords as a way of involving people in this process who have fewer restrictions and a little bit more of an ability to be honest about these legacy issues and who might be able to help tease out aspects of it. As Mr. Finucane said, however, we are not in a good place with the UK Government. Meetings with the parties as recently as this week have just had the same attitude. There is a sense, though, that we do not want to completely blow up the process or else that will allow it to be said that there is no consensus or alternative and that, therefore, what is being proposed will be cracked on with.
Regarding questions, colleagues from all the parties have covered the kind of pertinent issues concerning the witnesses' experiences and the technical aspects. There is not a lot to work from in the command paper, but in the witnesses' understanding what would be its impact regarding the ability to share information between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána? Have the witnesses any analysis to contribute concerning how the impact of the command paper would prevent and thwart cross-Border cases, particularly like that of the witnesses?
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
The issue that Ms Urwin highlighted earlier regarding the work of Jon Boutcher comes to the heart of this aspect. It does so insofar as we seem to have gone down this road because of what he is doing concerning the Glenanne gang. That is obviously what we have experience of. There is a barrier in this regard because it is classed as a review and not an investigation. We are not sure how high that barrier is currently and that is part of the difficulty and frustration. If the Stormont House Agreement had been implemented, then these are issues that would have been dealt with four or five years ago. There was always going to be a need to deal with these issues. Ms Urwin has rightly pointed out that there was not an historical investigations unit south of the Border, but we have always said that there should be and that there had to be if there was going to be information sharing between North and South and South and North. A small body had to exist that was capable of doing that. We felt that not having such a mechanism built-in to the Stormont House Agreement from the start was an oversight.
From the perspective of having details regarding information sharing between North and South, the ombudsman's office in the past had the same difficulties whenever it was looking at cross-Border material. Those difficulties were got around, so it can be done. The inquest system worked most successfully regarding the Kingsmill killings. There were issues in that context about sharing information and that problem was also got around. Therefore, there are ways to be found if people are willing. This is about ensuring that people are willing to do this and do not look at this matter from a purely legal perspective. People need to look at this situation and realise that it affects people’s lives daily. It may be difficult for some people to look at this situation from that vantage point unless it has touched them and their lives or someone they know. However, that is what we must convey in some way. From what has been said today and in other hearings of the committee, perhaps an understanding can be imparted to the people who make decisions that this should not necessarily just come down to a rule-of-law issue or a situation where the attitude is one of the "computer says no" and therefore it is not possible for anything to be done about it.
To pick up on some of Ms Hanna’s other comments, the consensus in Westminster is something we have also been talking about.
Nearly everyone says the way to go is to try to talk to people in the lodge because they, believe it or not, seem to be a bit more liberal about these things, which surprises me at times. Another issue people talk to me about is rule-of-law Tories. If one can talk to people who believe in the rule of law as opposed to what the red tops have to say about vets and "We have to stand behind our vets", etc., that is a huge issue. Whether we can do that or not is another thing.
It was heartening, to a small extent anyway, to hear that Brandon Lewis, when he was interviewed after the meeting this morning, said they were not rushing through the legislation. There had been a feeling that it may go through before Christmas. It may still do so, because he said he would not give a timeline. The issue there is they have come up against hurdles they did not expect. They thought initially they could promise vets they would not serve any time and that they were 100%. Then they were told if they did it for them, they would have to do it for everyone. That was an issue for them. Then they thought that because they had an 80-seat majority, they would get it through, and did not expect the pushback from all political parties in the North, on this island and from America, as well as human rights organisations across the world. It has become more difficult for them, though I am not saying it will not happen.
I thank the witnesses for their informative presentations. I will raise a couple of issues. We met with the Taoiseach on Monday. I met with members of the Mullen family, the daughters of Denis Mullen, who was murdered by the Glennane gang, and a member of the O'Dowd family. We put the questions to the Taoiseach around the sharing of information. It is mind-blowing that information in the hands of the State would not be made available to the Denton review. John Finucane introduced a bit of caution there and he may be right. Could either of the witnesses speak to that caution? Is is something we need to be worried about? Should we as a committee ask for a letter to be sent to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice to the effect that the review of the legislation as it stands should be complete to see whether we can transfer that information and, if we cannot under the current legislation, in the new year legislation be introduced to make sure the process can start? It is critical that people are aware that so many individuals whose lives have been touched by these murders are in the last years of their lives. In the O'Dowd family the father is in his 90s. If the meeting with the Taoiseach had happened a couple of years earlier, he would have been able to make it but because of his mobility he was not able to on that day. Should we as a committee, gung-ho, seek for legislation to provide that transfer of information or is there logic in being cautious?
Ms Margaret Urwin:
I have tried to relay today that there may not be a necessity for new legislation. That is why the Department of Justice is seeking the advice of the Attorney General. It is to see whether the current legislation is adequate or sufficient to enable them to pass the files. They have given us the commitment that if the Attorney General's advice is that it is not sufficient, they will ask the Oireachtas to introduce new legislation to cover for it. It would be premature to decide to go with new legislation. The Cathaoirleach has stated that the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement will write to the Minister for Justice about the matter. Until the advice is received from the Attorney General, it would be premature to seek to introduce new legislation.
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
I completely agree with Ms Urwin. Maybe I do not understand the workings of parliament, government and whatever but I think it is important that the urgency of this issue be made known. The Department of Justice knows it well and truly after the meeting we had on Monday. I know the Attorney General's office is an independent office, etc., but in some way the urgency of this decision needs to be transferred to that office. That is my thinking. I would hate to see the Department of Justice do what it said it will do and get a letter to the Attorney General by the end of this week or early next week and it then sits in an in tray for three months, six months or whatever. I do not know how that works but my call would be that anything possible be done to ensure the Attorney General is aware of how important this is. It is not just a piece of legal advice he has to look at and give, but something that affects people's lives daily and, as Deputy Tóibín pointed out, people are in the latter years of their lives. If anything can be done along those lines, that would be very helpful.
Staff in the Taoiseach's office said they were scanning the legislation to see if a mechanism existed and, if that mechanism does not exist, legislation would be forthcoming. Urgency is critical here so it does not drag on for months or longer.
Sometimes we talk about these things as ancient history but in many ways they are alive in people's lives today. I think of Councillor Denise Mullen, for example, who in the last week brought Garfield Beattie to court in relation to a threat he sent her over the last year. Garfield Beattie murdered Denise Mullen's father in front of her in their home when she was four years old and fired shots at her mother. She witnessed that situation and the same man has this week been convicted of sending threatening letters in the name of the east Tyrone UVF brigade. These tensions and difficulties remain and these individuals are living in the communities in which they wrought such phenomenal destruction. That pain is as alive today for many people as it was before.
Another issue the committee has touched on before is that the British are signatories to international agreements such as the Good Friday Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement. Have the witnesses' campaigns looked at the potential to hold the British to account in terms of the amnesty through international legal means, such as European courts, etc., to make sure they uphold their end of the agreements they signed?
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
I have to be honest and say we have not looked at it in much detail. We work closely with the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the legal team in Queen's University, the "Model Bill Team" as they call themselves. They produced a report recently that was critical and scathing of the British Government's proposals. From the legal perspective, many legal minds will be looking at how this can be challenged. I will not tell John Finucane what he should be doing but I assume he has one eye to looking at those things.
One of the main issues to emerge from that report was to point out where Britain was breaking international law and agreements. From that perspective, should the legislation come into being in any way, I imagine it will be challenged on numerous levels. The main difficulty we currently have is that until we see the legislation, it is difficult to know what we will need to challenge. We cannot challenge the basis of it, although a case was taken in the courts in Belfast this week about the command paper. The argument that came back from that case was that until the detail is seen, there is a question as to what to challenge. We know what Britain might want to do in this instance, but because it has had difficulties, the legislation may be watered down. If it is watered down, what will that look like? That said, there are others within the Conservative Party who have said it has not gone far enough. That is the sort of position we are currently in.
I appreciate that does not answer Deputy Tóibín's question. Should the legislation become law, along with other NGOs we work with and the legal profession we work with - we have worked with many solicitors’ firms in the North - we will examine if it can be challenged. The difficulty with taking matters down a legal route is it can take an awful long time to go through the courts system, even with a fair wind in the courts in Belfast, if it was to be challenged there. The Judiciary in the North has been very good recently in regard to legacy issues, directing that things need to be done more quickly than they have been done in the past. Even so, the matter would then go to the supreme court in London, and there would be a question as to how long it would sit there before there would be the opportunity to challenge it the whole way to Europe. The issue will be on the table, but it can be a slow process.
In the letter we agreed to write earlier, perhaps we could add reference to the urgency of the matter and to the fact the committee will support our guests and fully agrees with them. We will ask the Minister to contact the Attorney General and express the full urgency and concerns that have been expressed, if that is helpful.
When we met the Taoiseach, we tried to impact on him the necessity for the Government to raise the priority of these cases with the British Government. Obviously, the British Government in its current iteration has an ideological opposition, in many ways, to justice in the North of Ireland. There is still a necessity for this State to push the envelope when it comes to putting pressure on the British Government to do the right thing on this. Is there anything else the southern State can do in regard to these processes? Is there anything we are missing out on? I am thinking, for example, of this committee perhaps writing to Joe Biden and asking him to exert pressure on the British Government in regard to these issues. In fairness, the Biden Administration has been very positively disposed in playing on Ireland's side in the context of the difficult relationship that now exists between Ireland and Britain. Is there anything else we should be doing in a similar vein?
Ms Margaret Urwin:
Deputy Smith raised the issue of the three Dáil motions that were passed in 2008, 2011 and 2016. While we are very hopeful Jon Boutcher will get the information that relates to the cases that come under the umbrella of Operation Denton, we still need the information on all the other cases that are not included in that. Perhaps there could be a motion specifically on that or it could be raised with the British Government. I am not sure which would be more effective. The motions have had no effect. The first one was passed in 2008, more than 13 years ago. As Deputy Smith said, the British Government has never even responded to it. I do not know how effective another motion will be. I do not know about involving Biden or his people, or whether that would be more effective. Certainly, motions have had no effect at all.
Ms Michelle Gildernew:
Whatever Deputy Tully was going to ask has been covered, so I will proceed. I thank Ms Urwin and Mr. Brecknell for coming here. Their presentations have been very powerful and we have an insight into how difficult this issue is for victims and survivors and those bereaved throughout the conflict. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I thank them for their tireless work on these issues. It is very important we have good people who keep flying the flag for victims, survivors and those bereaved.
Our committee has written previously to the US Senate committee on foreign relations. I will make a suggestion. I might need the Chair's indulgence on this. I know we have written to it before. However, given this issue of legacy and the British Government's highly undemocratic desire to put a line in the sand under all of the legacy processes and everything, it would be no harm to write to it again and reiterate our call for that to happen and for it to be able to engage with elected representatives throughout the island of Ireland on that. I also ask Mr. Brecknell and Ms Urwin whether they think enough is being done. Obviously, all of the parties on the island of Ireland are opposed to this. Do they suggest anything else we need to do to try to have our voice heard?
I do not know if I have said before that I was at a meeting in London a number of weeks ago. It was not just between the parties of the North, but with Labour, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens. There was a bit of chat about the Salisbury Convention and whether it would be opposed. We talked about how many barristers, judges and solicitors there are in the House of Lords and hoped the rule of law might usurp the commitment in Westminster. What more do the witnesses think we could do to try to stop this legislation going through? Do they think there is something we are missing or should be doing?
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
I am not sure how the committees work, but anything that can be done to bring this away from being a British-Irish issue, so to speak, and to get the Americans involved is always helpful. Sometimes, they do not have the best human rights record either and we need to bear that in mind when we are talking about moving things forward. However, if we can get pressure to come to bear, from whatever format it comes, that is always helpful.
With regard to what else can be done, part of the difficulty we have is that the victim and survivor community, if that is what one wants to call them, is quite diverse. I alluded to that in my opening comments when I made the point that all five political parties in the North are opposed to these proposals, but probably for slightly different reasons. That makes it more difficult for the political parties here to speak with one voice and that filters through the victims and survivors community.
The issue needs to be addressed from the point of view of saying to all the MPs who, at the end of the day, are the people who will vote on this, that it is not a black and white issue about whether their veterans did anything right or wrong. That is how it is portrayed and is being portrayed in the vast majority of the British press. We need to try to inform those people who may be thinking of voting this through that this goes way beyond what their veterans and next-door neighbours who happened to serve in the North in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s did or did not do here.
We need to be saying to them that there is a bigger issue here. This is about the rule of law, as Ms Gildernew and others have mentioned. It is about Britain's standing in the world and whether it thinks it has a standing. Well, it thinks it has a standing. Whether others think it has a standing anymore and whether it cares about it is another thing. However, it also sends out a very bad message to other democracies around the world and other countries that are less than democracies. Here we have Britain, which claims to be the mother of all democracies, flouting the rule of law.
We need to be able to talk to those people.
At the end of the day, the MPs at this meeting are the people who have that wherewithal. I am not sure how one would go about that because it is quite difficult to call large numbers of people together to talk to them. It would be difficult. Perhaps others will correct me and tell me we can get people together. It would be important to get as many members of the Opposition together as possible. However, 80 others would still be needed to vote. The question is how we convince those people.
It will be interesting when the legislation goes before the House of Lords. There will be a decent debate there because there are some very good people in that House who are completely opposed to this and know what they are talking about. However, that will only slow it down. The House of Lords cannot stop the legislation. We need to talk to MPs. That needs to come from pressure from parliamentarians in other jurisdictions, whether that is America, Canada, Australia or other Commonwealth countries. We need to think more strategically about the issue but I do not have an answer. Those are my ramblings.
Ms Margaret Urwin:
They may be susceptible to American pressure, if I may say. It is difficult to see how the legislation, if it is brought to Parliament, will not pass. It would be difficult to get more than 80 MPs to vote against it. As Mr. Brecknell said, the House of Lords can only slow the progress of the legislation, it cannot stop it. America seems to be the best bet. America tried to stop the British Government bringing forward the legislation in the first place.
I can ask Mr. Stephens. I know he cannot speak at this meeting but there is no reason the committee cannot do that, or, indeed, write to all MPs who, like Ms Gildernew, have a voice in the British Parliament. It is a matter for each MP to use his or her voice. The reality is that if one wants to stop a vote in a parliament, and one has a seat in that parliament, there is a clear way to do that, or try to do it, and that is to go in and vote, if the issue is big enough. I appreciate that different parties have different views. That was my personal comment on the matter. I have no issue with supporting writing to whomever the committee wishes. Mr. Stephens will be more than happy to consult with members after the meeting and send around a draft letter that people will be happy with. We will send that letter post-haste, if that is acceptable.
The only way to stop legislation one does not want, if one is a member of parliament, is to vote against it. That is my own view. Each party and member is entitled to a vote and has the right to use it as they wish. There are five or six minutes of Sinn Féin's time left. Perhaps Deputy Tully wants to come in. She suggested earlier she might wish to do so.
I was going to come back in, though some of the issues have already been covered. Time is of the essence. The Belturbet bombing, for example, was almost 50 years ago and many other incidents were almost that long ago too. People are passing away, as has been pointed out. It is a pity that the Irish Government has not done more around the recommendations that were made to this committee two and a half years ago to try to ensure that people get the truth. The only way we are ever going to heal all of our people, regardless of who they are, is if we get truth, justice and reconciliation that allows people to talk about what happened and, hopefully, resolve the issues.
Our party's position in Westminster is well known so I do not think it is helpful to raise that issue here.
Ms Margaret Urwin:
I wonder what happened to those recommendations. Dr. Thomas Leahy put in an awful lot of work on those recommendations. Perhaps Deputy Tully could follow up on that matter and see why those recommendations have been put on a shelf somewhere, it would appear, and nothing has been done about them. A lot of time and effort went into preparing those suggestions and recommendations. It would be good to find out what has happened to them and if there is an intention in the Government to implement them, or even some of them.
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
I will come in on what the Deputy said about getting to the truth. One of the things I mentioned earlier was that we need to have some form of investigative process to get to the truth. We see that a part of the proposals being put forward by the British Government refer to a body where people will come forward and offer up their truth and whatever. We must remember that will be their truth. Can that be questioned or investigated? Can it be stood over? It is important that whatever process is there includes a rigorous investigative process and is not a matter of asking people to come forward and tell us what they did in order to be punished. That does not work. It does not work, whether that is being suggested by a Government or civic society bodies that want to propose these types of processes whereby people come forward to say what they have done and that is it. That then becomes the narrative of the conflict. To me, that does not work.
Mr. Pádraig Ó Muirigh, who represented most of the Ballymurphy families in the recent inquest, made the point at a webinar I attended recently that a witness came forward claiming something completely contrary to the story of those number of days and when the witness was questioned and it was put to him, he was unable to stand over those claims. That is why I think the process must include an inquiry. People cannot just come forward willy-nilly, saying they did this or that without those claims being challenged. That is what we need to be looking towards. We need to be examining how we can do this in such a way that it gets as much information as possible to the people who need it. It is about seeking the truth. Justice means different things to different people. We must be realistic and say that many of these incidents and murders happened over 50 years ago, so from that perspective are we going to be able to get people through the court system, if that what justice looks like? To me, that is not necessarily exactly what justice looks like. It is just one part of justice. Justice means much more. It can mean just understanding what actually happened to someone's loved one. We need to not lose sight of that. As I have said, there is a notion in the proposals that people would come forward. I do not believe that any British soldier who shot someone in the streets of Belfast or anywhere else in the North is going to come forward. By the same token, I do not believe that any large numbers of members of paramilitary groups are going to come forward and "fess up" to what people have done or what they did in the past. We must be honest with victims and survivors and put it out there loud and clear that such a process, or one like it, will not work.
I am sorry, but we must suspend again for reasons beyond our control. I understand from the clerk that there is another vote in the Dáil Chamber so, unfortunately, we will have to suspend. The Sinn Féin time slot has ended so it will be the turn of the Green Party, and Deputy Costello, who has been waiting a long time, when we come back.
I join others in condemning this command paper and the idea that we would simply draw a line under the legacy of the Troubles and think that this would be okay. I joined others, some of whom are members of the committee, in standing with families in Belfast to condemn this. The point has been made several times that there is cross-party all-island unanimity that these proposals are a bad idea. It was pointed out there is more agreement that this is the wrong thing to do than there was agreement that the Good Friday Agreement itself was the right thing to do. That is how far removed the Tory party is. It has managed to drive the competing communities and parties together, which is probably a very rare thing to happen.
As an Oireachtas committee, we must keep an eye on the British Government and the Good Friday Agreement but also on the Irish Government. I am very much concerned that failing to legislate here has allowed us to be sucked into the memory hole the British Government is desperate to go down. We could go down a long route into how it has stood in the way of truth and justice and actively sabotaged and undermined previous inquiries, but much of that will not get us very far. There was a detailed agreement between Dublin and London relating to an independent commission on information retrieval, which would have necessitated legislation in Dublin and London. There was no move here to take any steps towards that. Even publishing heads of Bill or beginning pre-legislative scrutiny to put some moral pressure on London never happened. By doing this, we have allowed ourselves to a certain degree to be sucked into the British Government's memory hole. Yes, there is a serious crimes review team within An Garda Síochána but it is very broad and will deal with Troubles cases where appropriate. I would echo the words of others here regarding our own historic inquiries unit, which can specialise in these things.
There are disadvantages to being at the end of the speaking list but one advantage is that all the questions I wanted to ask have been asked. The most important thing we can do in this committee is to try to be constructive and focus on the things we agree on instead of throwing up minor things we disagree on. We discussed the information not being shared and other ways to approach this.
I wonder whether engagement with the Minister and his officials would be useful. Would that need to be in public or private in order that we get slightly more truthful answers?
My next question stems from a genuine sense of curiosity because I do not know the answer. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is perhaps an international body that we, as parliamentarians in Dublin, should seek to use to put pressure on the British Government. The European Convention on Human Rights has within its jurisprudence a right to truth, which would support the families and undermine the British Government's case.
Equally, one has the British Government saying that it wants to amend its own human rights legislation to deal with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that it does not agree with, which is concerning. As Mr. Brecknell said, by the time we get to the Supreme Court in London things would move very slowly and it could be even slower in Strasbourg.
If we are trying to find every avenue possible and try every lever that we can pull, then one thing we can do here would be to link with any party that does have members in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and to explore in that one option, alongside all of the letters and committees that we have spoken about previously.
I do not have any questions for the witnesses. I thank them for their presentations, and for the hard work and campaigning that they have done.
For me, there is a certain small frustration about how we seem to be repeating the same conversation and it is very hard to move things along. I can appreciate that such frustration is that of an outsider. I can only imagine that on top of that frustration, there is heartache for those who have lost loved ones and family members. They just want to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones and that in itself is reason enough for all us to come together and take action. I will leave it there. There is lots of time left over and I am sure other Members will happily take this on.
Mr. Alan Brecknell:
I picked up most of what Deputy Costello said. As he said, when one contributes towards the end of a meeting then most of the questions will have been asked. That said, it is important that we hear that the Green Party, as well as everyone else, supports the position. I know personally, from speaking to the Deputy, that this is the case.
The Deputy mentioned that the British Government has talked about amending the Human Rights Act in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights. That still would not absolve them of any legal blame for the period of time that they were signed up to it. From a legacy perspective, it does not help them. The Deputy also mentioned something that goes back to what Deputy Peadar Tóibín had asked about earlier and he pointed out that the British Government were signatories to international agreement or whatever. Again, I am sure not whether the following is even possible but it would be interesting to see if the Irish Attorney General could form a legal opinion on the international perspectives of the British Government's proposals. I do not know whether the Attorney General is allowed to as it is a different jurisdiction. However, it does have an impact on the Irish State and how the Irish State deals with legacy as well. That is another thing that the committee might be able to do.
The Deputy is right that it is important things happen at these committees. It is disappointing to hear Ms Urwin say that after the good work that Thomas Leahy had done, a lot of issues were not followed through on. We engaged with him, as did Ms Urwin in the past, and he had some very good proposals.
Finally, I thank the Deputy for his comments.
There was detailed agreements between Dublin and London on how that would look and function. For that to function it needed legislation in Dublin and London. Any time that I asked about progress I was told that there was ongoing contact with officials in London. Even if we do not go as far as passing the Bill, we can publish the heads of the Bill and begin pre-legislative scrutiny. That is the very first step and a very non-committal step in terms of our legislative processes. It would show that we take this issue seriously, we are living up to our commitments in terms of Stormont House Agreement and that act in itself would put some pressure on London to follow through and act. Both Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. We can point to London and to everything they are doing wrong but we need to reflect on the opportunities we have to nudge them along the right path as much we can. As Mr. Brecknell said, they have essentially reneged on the Stormont House Agreement, so I do not know how far we would get if we were to pursue that now.
Mr. Brecknell also made the suggestion that we seek the advice of the Attorney General. The Irish Government is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. We do need to know and the question is very relevant. I think it is legitimate, as a co-guarantor, to ask what international law can we rely on to enforce the Good Friday Agreement. I mean what power do we have as a co-guarantor to enforce that. Seeking that opinion would be very productive, along with all of the other things that we have discussed.
If we were to agree to that proposal from Deputy Costello, then the clerk to the committee can circulate a draft letter as soon as possible after this meeting is over. That might go some way to meeting the points that have been made. Ms Michelle Gildernew had a proposal as well. I think that the secretariat communicated with her and circulated the statement that we made earlier. Does any other member wish to comment? There is still 20 minutes remaining in this slot if people wish to comment. Perhaps people are satisfied and I suggest that Ms Urwin and Mr. Brecknell make a final statement, if they wish. Are they happy with what we propose to do? If they wish they can just sum up their perspective.
If my memory is good enough, yes. First, we agreed that we would write to the Irish Government on the issues that the witnesses have raised, particularly the commitment they got about prioritising legislation if no progress is made. The clerk has the wording. Ms Urwin spoke about the advice of the Attorney General in her statement, so we will write to the Government urging it to seek the advice of the Attorney General on the issue whereby if legislation is needed that it would deal with it as a matter of urgency. I presume that the Government would prepare legislation if it feels that is the outcome. Is that the advice, Ms Urwin?
We got a note from Michelle Gildernew about writing to the American Government. We have a small difficulty in that the clerk to the committee cannot officially speak at these meetings. We will go into private session so that we can tell Ms Urwin exactly what we have agreed.
Further to Ms Urwin's query to us, we have agreed that we will circulate to all members of the committee proposals which members have put forward. We will get agreement on the wording in the next couple of days and when we have done that we will circulate the proposals to Ms Urwin and Mr. Brecknell to ensure it fulfils what they would like us to do. We will then do that if that is agreed by everybody.
I thank the witnesses for their courtesy, for their command and knowledge, for their interest and dedication and most of all for their commitment to getting the truth, justice and the facts, notwithstanding the huge number of years that have elapsed since all of these killings took place. A lady from my town, called Concepta Dempsey, was killed in the Dublin bombings. I knew her mother well as she was a famous Fine Gael member. She was the first ever Fine Gael member of Drogheda Borough Council on which she served for a number of years and her son, Raymond Dempsey, Lord have mercy on him, was Lord Mayor of Drogheda Town Council on three separate occasions. We all have memories of people.