Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 10 November 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill and the UK Government's Plans around the Human Rights Act: Amnesty International UK
Apologies have been received from Senator Ó Donnghaile, Mr. Colum Eastwood MP and Senator Mullen.
I propose to call members in the following rotation: Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the SDLP, the Alliance, the Green Party, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Independents and Aontú. Is that agreed? Agreed. It is a 50-minute cycle. If members are happy to proceed, we will introduce our guests first and deal with our other business later.
Our engagement today is with Ms Gráinne Teggart, Northern Ireland deputy director of Amnesty International UK, to discuss the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill and the UK Government's threats to the Human Rights Act. Ms Teggart is joined by Mr. Eugene Reavey and Mr. Michael O'Hare. On behalf of the committee, I very much welcome them. This is a hugely important occasion for all of us.
I must read out the citation or rules on parliamentary privilege for everybody. I wish to explain some limitations to parliamentary privilege and the practice of the Houses as regards references witnesses may make to other persons in their evidence. 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 that matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings should be given. They 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 or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to that person's or entity's good name.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that we should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. That is just a normal statement I make to protect everybody and what we all do and say here in the Parliament.
I welcome again Ms Teggart and invite her to make her opening statement. Thank you for coming, Ms Teggart.
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
I thank the Chair and the committee for the opportunity to be here to discuss these two matters of grave concern. I will discuss each in turn. As you have mentioned, Chair, for the discussion on the Troubles Bill I am joined by Mr. Michael O'Hare and Mr. Eugene Reavey. Mr. O'Hare is the brother of Majella O'Hare, a 12-year-old girl shot dead by a British army soldier in 1976. Majella was on her way to church with a group of friends in the Armagh village of Whitecross, and when they passed an army patrol, about 20 yd or 30 yd beyond it, a soldier shot Majella with his machine gun. In 2011 the Ministry of Defence apologised for the killing, but no one has ever been held accountable for it. Mr. Reavey is the brother of John Martin, Brian and Anthony Reavey, who were murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF, in 1976. The killings were part of a string of attacks on Catholics by the Glenanne gang, made up of members of the UVF, the Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR, and the RUC. I will make some introductory remarks before handing over to Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey to do the same, and then we will be happy to answer any questions.
I wish to express Amnesty's grave concern about and opposition to the Troubles Bill, which would institute a de factoamnesty for grave human rights violations committed during the conflict.
The Bill fails to comply with the UK’s human rights obligations; it is a significant interference in the justice system; it undermines the rule of law; and it will set a dangerous precedent internationally, including by signalling to other states that they too can ignore their human rights obligations. This Bill cannot be amended to be human rights-compliant. We do not see this as a Bill which can be fixed. Amnesty calls for the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill to be dropped entirely. Upon doing so, we urge the UK Government to revert to the Stormont House Agreement which, with some adjustments, offered a human rights-compliant way forward in dealing with the past. We view the Troubles Bill as a cruel betrayal of victims and one which clearly sacrifices their rights in favour of shielding perpetrators of serious human rights violations such as murder and torture.
As part of our ongoing work on these matters, we have been engaging with victims; UN special rapporteurs; and advisers in Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR; the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights; Department of Foreign Affairs officials; the US Congress; the US State Department, including the US Global Justice Ambassador; and our local US Consul General on these matters. We are also currently engaged in the UN universal periodic review of the human rights record, which takes place today, and have met with various states around our core recommendations, including on the Troubles Bill and on the threats to the Human Rights Act.
It is telling that since the publication of the command paper in 2021 we saw swift and important interventions by various international actors in clear recognition of the significance of the UK Government’s proposals, which are a flagrant breach of international human rights obligations, with a view to the precedent which would be set by a state such as the UK, which has the international standing that it does, seeking to introduce such a broad-sweeping amnesty. This followed the unequivocal rejection we saw from victims, victims’ groups, political parties in the North, Amnesty International and others.
Our analysis of the Bill, addressing its provisions under headings of review of deaths, conditional immunity and cessation of proceedings, is in the briefing provided the committee. Overall, I would highlight that the Bill is unworkable and in breach of binding international law and the Good Friday Agreement, including by denying remedies for breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights and denying direct access to the courts. Human rights-compliant investigations will be replaced by toothless, light-touch reviews which will not deliver for victims. The time-limited period given for reviews is also not ECHR-compatible. I am sure many before today's session will have mentioned the lack of meaningful consultation, including with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, a Good Friday Agreement body with a mandate to advise on the human rights compatibility of legislation, from the UK Government prior to their unilateral departure from the Stormont House Agreement and the commitment to this as reaffirmed in New Decade, New Approach agreement and since. We share these concerns.
I also highlight the pace at which the Bill was progressed through the House of Commons stages before reaching the House of Lords. That was also of notable concern. The Committee of the Whole House stage in the House of Commons is not itself entirely uncommon when dealing with Bills deemed to be of constitutional significance, but the woefully inadequate two days given to this served to curtail the level of scrutiny needed for a Bill with such serious implications. We understand the Bill will receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords later this month on 23 November, where we expect it will be subject to greater scrutiny. However, parliamentary arithmetic being what it is, we can see that the current trajectory for this Bill is for it to be passed by Parliament.
This brings us to the point of seemingly inevitable legal challenge, should the UK Government fail to heed the warnings around this Bill and it is put on the Statute Book. We expect to see multiple legal challenges mounted. At Amnesty we will observe these closely with a possible view to intervention. It is important that the burden of challenge does not fall solely to victims who have already been impacted by the multiple decades-long failings of the state to deliver the truth, justice and accountability to which victims are entitled. Many do not have the years it will take to go through the domestic courts and eventually on to the European Court of Human Rights. Many will hold an expectation - it is our view also - that the Irish Government should commit to an inter-state challenge if the British Government continues with this unilateral action. The Irish Government has been clear in its opposition to the Troubles Bill, which is very welcome. With Second Reading in the House of Lords soon expected, the UK Government does not appear to be heeding the overwhelming opposition to this Bill across our society and internationally. We urge the Irish Government to commit to taking an inter-state case to the European Court of Human Rights if this Bill becomes law. This is not without precedent; we have seen this previously in relation to torture. Even now, it is not too late for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to do the right thing and vindicate rights rather than remove them and scrap the Troubles Bill.
On the Human Rights Act, Amnesty is deeply concerned by the UK Government’s threats to this Bill and to rights protections in the UK. The ironically-named Bill of Rights Bill, we understand, is now set for a return and would upend the UK’s existing model of rights. It seeks to heavily steer and control the approach that domestic courts would take to human rights issues. Clause after clause either imposed new definitions of rights, closed-off interpretive avenues from courts or sought to heavily tilt the scales of interpretation away from protecting individual rights and towards protecting Government policy and public authorities. It would also set a damaging precedent internationally, handing huge powers to Government to significantly limit the judicial protection of rights and protect Ministers and public authorities from accountability for human rights violations. It also undermined the principle of universality of human rights, further limiting access to justice for rights violations and breaching the Good Friday Agreement.
The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, into Northern Ireland domestic law is an explicit commitment of the Good Friday Agreement. The effective delivery of ECHR rights in Northern Ireland domestic law is through the Human Rights Act, HRA, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, NIA. The HRA and the NIA have constitutional functions in Northern Ireland that are unique in the UK. Any amendment of the HRA necessitates a process of review between the British and Irish Governments in consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly parties. It is difficult to see how international and local agreement could be secured for the changes, particularly to those proposed. Reducing access to rights would breach a carefully-crafted peace agreement and upset the delicate balance that has been hard-won over the years.
While much is changing at a rapid pace in British politics at the minute, what remains constant is the reckless approach to undermining rights and unilateral action on a range of matters which has a destabilising effect on core safeguards of the Good Friday Agreement, toying with our delicate peace settlement and reneging on agreements made with the Irish Government and others. We expect the ironically-named Bill of Rights Bill to progress to Second Reading imminently. There is also a possibility that it could look slightly different and that we might see a different iteration of it. We urge the committee to closely follow developments in that Bill and would appreciate the opportunity to address the committee again when we see next iteration or if it is the Bill as was previously proposed.
I will hand over to Michael O’Hare and then Eugene Reavey to make their remarks on the Bill, after which we will be happy to take questions.
Mr. Michael O'Hare:
I thank the Chair and the committee for their time and presence today. It is very kind of them to hear our stories. I will introduce the story of my sister, Majella, for those who have not caught up with it yet. It was 14 August 1976. It was a splendid, lovely day. She was going to confession with a few friends. She walked through a checkpoint and suddenly she was shot in the back by three machine gun bullets from a paratrooper lying at the outset of a vehicle checkpoint. My father was working very close by at the school where he was the caretaker. He knew something had happened because he heard the commotion among the other children. He rushed to the scene and found Majella mortally wounded. What happened after that is that they were quite abusive to my father as he claimed to be the child's father. He was abused verbally and told that he was nothing only an old grass cutter. He said, "There is more to it than that. This is my daughter". She was then taken in a helicopter to Daisy Hill Hospital but the damage was done; it was much too late.
Majella had already died. In the aftermath, an inquiry was concocted to cover up their actions which was all lies. The police sergeant from the local station came to me in the evening and said the police were not happy with story they were being told and that they wanted to take it further. Our house was in total chaos at that stage. Mum and Dad were devastated. The rest of the family were on their way back.
They went on to investigate the circumstances and after a few weeks of interviewing people in the immediate area who were working in fields and within earshot of what happened, they were able to confirm to the police that only one shot was fired. There was no crossfire situation. No third party was involved and they were not telling the truth. It ended up going to court on a manslaughter charge because before we arrived at that stage, they came to me and said that if they went for a murder charge they were unlikely to even get it into court. The fellow who was investigating said if we went for a lesser charge that at least there might be some chance of a reprimand given that the army did not give any account to the police force at the time. It was all in-house and the police were not even able to interview the soldier involved. It went to court on a manslaughter charge and was thrown out immediately by the judge sitting in a Diplock situation who had no interest in defending the victim, but was more interested in leaving the path clear for the security forces. I know we are not mentioning names here so I will not mention names but I know the people involved. It was a terrible time for us as a family. We have still not recovered.
Dad died ten years later of a broken heart but Mum survived until she was 96 and she was a power of strength to the family. In respect of that story, horrific as it is, I do not want to take up too much time because it is difficult for me to relate it to the committee. I assert that the Bill that is being proposed now is absolutely despicable because it leaves Majella's killer to walk free, which he has done for the past 40 years. We must use every available angle possible to object and stop this Bill going through because it is not right. People who kill are subject to the law, or they should be. It is important that victims are listened to. It is simply wrong that the UK Government is ignoring the opposition to these plans.
I thank the committee for listening but I sincerely hope that the Irish Government will do everything in its power to challenge this Bill at every opportunity. I will finish on that note.
We deeply appreciate Mr. O'Hare giving his statement to bear witness. We acknowledge his pain and suffering and that of his family and his late father and how traumatic that was for them all. They are right to seek accountability from anyone who perpetrates acts like those. I invite Mr. Reavey to contribute.
Mr. Eugene Reavey:
Good afternoon. I thank the committee for inviting me. We were a Catholic nationalist family living in south Armagh. We had no interest whatsoever in the politics of the day or anything like that. We were a small humble family earning a living. That is all we were. There were eight boys and four girls in our house with our mother and father, so 14 altogether. I do not know if it was because of those big numbers or what it was, but on 4 January 1976 at 6 o'clock my mother and father headed off to visit her aunt in Camlough and brought three or four of the children with them. Normally we would have all been at home on a Sunday evening but only three of the boys were left. They were sitting watching "Celebrity Squares" at about 6.10 p.m and the next thing a gun came in at the top of the door. Our lads did not pass any remarks. They thought perhaps the soldiers were doing a canvas. Sometimes they would come around filling in forms and such things, but before they could speak a big burly fellow at the door opened fire and put three bullets into John Martin first. I did not know this until a few years ago but I was talking to a fellow in the coroner's office and he told me that three bullets went in and out the back and the other 40 bullets just riddled him. They just emptied whatever they had into him. John Martin died instantly. He would not have known anything, but the gunman was very experienced because the bullets were all on target. Brian and Anthony were sitting in an armchair. Brian was in the chair and Anthony was sitting on the side of it and they tried to make a getaway up to the bedroom but in doing so Brian was shot in the back. One bullet went right through his back and out through his heart and he fell into the fireplace on the other side of the door and was also killed instantly. Anthony ran up into the room they were trying to reach and he dived under the bed and the gunman came up after him and stood on the bed and riddled the bed. He emptied a whole magazine into him. He was shot 17 times. The gunman came back into the kitchen and tried to get into the other rooms. Anthony heard him shooting off all the other doors looking for the rest of us. Then he heard the boots of the men running down the pathway and getting into the cars and they sped away. Anthony then crawled out from under the bed bleeding heavily and he had to crawl over Brian, Lord have mercy on him, to get into the kitchen. When he got into the kitchen he could see John Martin was just like a rag doll. He was cut to pieces and there was no point in going over to check on him. He made his way outside on his hands and knees. He crossed the road and was making his way up to the neighbours' house when a car he knew well passed him.
The man did not stop but he told me why he did not stop. He said that he thought that Anthony was a cod-acting - you know young fellas. Anyway he went to the neighbours house. He crawled up on his hands and knees and banged the door and shouted, "Angela, I'm shot, everybody's shot". He fell into her arms and was unconscious. She cared for him as best she could until they rang for the ambulance, the priest and the doctor. I was living a couple of miles over the road from it and a friend of mine, Fr. Malone, was home from Africa. Normally when he came to my house he was full of beans and in great form but this night when he came in, I knew rightly that something was not right. He said to me, "Throw your jacket on Eugene, there has been an accident over at the cottage." When we were half-way over the road, I said to him, "Colm, could you tell me what is wrong or what has happened?" He then told me there had been a shooting and he thought that there was one fatality. I drove home and as I was going through the door two policemen stopped me and said, "You'll not get in there". Obviously I was going in and was not taking no for an answer and I went in passed them. The first thing I saw was John Martin lying on the floor. I did not see anything else. I was on my knees saying a prayer. I looked up and saw this policeman poking through the china cabinet. I knew this policeman and I said to him, "Excuse me, what are you doing searching through that?". He said he was looking for ammunition and that they had intelligence that there was ammunition in this house. I said, "Really?". I got up and caught him by the neck and a cousin of mine, Kevin Reavey, gave me a hand and we threw him outside. We then had to go to the hospital and identify the bodies. That was all right.
The next morning we went over to the cottage and we noticed that the police, or army, I do not know which, had come back in the middle of the night or sometime and thrashed every bit of furniture in the house. They did not leave a stick unbroken. We were busy on the Monday trying to get the priest organised and permission for the grave, all of that goes along with the death. Anthony was still in Daisy Hill hospital. He had a bullet left in him and they had to operate and take that away. A funny thing happened on the Monday. There were press in Belfast during the Troubles but they all moved up to Whitecross almost as soon as it happened and you could hardly get in through the door. We could not do any live television because there were helicopters above the house all day and the police were stopping people and all of this carry on. The soldiers, the helicopters, the police and the Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR, left at 4 o'clock. Ivan Little, who works for the television company, was then able to get his interview with my father and he called for no retaliation for the death of his sons. We were originally supposed to leave at 5.30 p.m. but this programme was not on until 5.40 p.m. which was a wee bit of time later. We left after that and drove one mile over the road, which only takes a minute. Michael knows it very well. We ran into the Kingsmill massacre. Mine was the first car. We were coming along the road and there were no police or security forces anywhere even though people had been stopped five minutes before by the security forces and directed away in different ways. This man was standing waving and I pulled up and he said to me, "Eugene, jump in quickly there has been an awful slaughtering match just up the road here." I went on up a bit further. It was raining and the lights of the minibus that was sitting on the left hand side of the road were still on and I could see the steam or the smoke rising.
First I thought it was McGee's cows because they were in that field. As I got further up, I could then see that it was bodies. After they shot them, they must have all pulled the bodies out. It was like a big pile of bodies. It was an awful sight, which I will never, ever get over. The smell of death is unbelievable. Nobody knew who these people were. We did not know whether they were Catholics, Protestants or whatever they were. It did not matter who they were. They were human beings. I said to the fellow who was on the side, "Gerry, would you get over to McGee's house and raise the alarm and get all the services here because I am not much good to you because I cannon cope. I had my brothers' murdered last night and there is another fella in intensive care".
We reversed back to the Kingsmill crossroad and then went away on to Newry. To cut a long story short, we went in said our prayers. The two coffins were there. They were not going to open the coffins but Seamus my brother said to them in the hospital they needed to open because my mother would never let them go without seeing them. In the state they were in, nobody could have seen them but fair play to the people in the morgue, they did a really good job on them. We then carried the coffins out and put them into the hearse but we could not get out because the ambulances were all starting to bring in these bodies from Kingsmill. I went into the room they were in and said my name was Eugene Reavey and that I was a member of the Reavey family and that we would like to convey our condolences on behalf of our loved ones.
We all tried to get home but we could not go the way we came in because it was closed off. The two hearses had the bodies of John Martin and Brian in them and the cars following behind but we were stopped at an army checkpoint on the road. They let the two hearses through but stopped them. Seamus's car and my car were stuck in the middle of two Landrovers. They put us out of the cars and put us up against a Landrover. This wee bastard, God forgive me, had a gun in my back and was shaking. Honest to God, if I had made a wrong move, he would have shot me. There is no doubt about that. Mammy was on my left-hand side. I could hear this mockery going on and I looked around.
This soldier was saying to her ''Oh Mrs. Reavey, isn't it well for you that has no trouble. Isn't it well for you Mrs. Reavey that doesn't have to stand out here in the rain looking after these Irish people. Oh, you have only one nose Mrs. Reavey. Where is your other nose, Mrs. Reavey? Oh, you have only two ears, Mrs. Reavey. Where is your other ear?"
I was standing there and I thought that Mammy had reared eight of us and we were good big strong fellas. At the time that she needed us most, we could not do a thing. Mammy knew I was getting very restless and she shouted over to me to not say anything. This happened over a good while. It was not over in a couple of seconds. He opened the boot of Seamus's car, which had three plastic bags full of blood-stained clothes. Michael knows all this. He could tell you all of this. They emptied the clothes out onto the road and they danced on them. The soldiers actually danced on them. If anybody said to me that this was just a spontaneous thing that happened, I would not believe them. I think this was all planned. They would have known who we were. There was venom in them.
We eventually got home and my mother stayed up for two days sitting between the coffins. Thousands of people came. Oh my God, it was desperate. Just opposite our house all through this time, there was a soldier or two with listening devices and all sorts of things. They said that they were waiting on IRA people coming from the South. There were no IRA people coming near our house. Anthony had been doing well and we went to the funeral. There were about 300 soldiers stuck in every hole in the hedge on the three mile journey to the chapel. They photographed everybody that was at the funeral. Oh my God, they made a real cod of it altogether.
We now have evidence after all these years. The day books were lost in Newtownhamilton police station, in Bessbrook police station and in Newry. The medical records are all gone. There is nothing left. The inquest came and, as we were walking up the steps into the inquest, a soldier hit me with his rifle and he said ''Go on, yez murdering bastards, yez''. The inquest was a complete mess. I could not hear a thing. It was the last one on the agenda that day. The coroner said that the injuries Anthony Reavey received at the shooting on 4 January played no part in his death. A couple of days later, the coroner changed his verdict. He never advised the solicitors, legal teams or ourselves. We did not know that for about 35 years until the HET came in. The pathologist report clearly states that Anthony's death was a result of the shooting. We had one man saying "Yes" and the coroner saying "No".
We now have documents showing that all these murders, Kingsmills, the O'Dowds, and ourselves, were all planned by British military intelligence in Lurgan. It gives the names of all the people who were at the meeting. I am not going to say those names here because it is part of a legal challenge. They tortured our family for 40 years. Every time we went out the door they tortured us. That is all part of another civil claim.
I and all the other victims I know are not in any way enamoured by this Bill. This Bill will effectively stop us from getting the justice that we so dearly need. My father died in 1981 after 14 heart attacks. My mother died in 2013. She was 89. My father was only 57. I will be 75 on my next birthday and there is no sign of any justice coming.
It is very clear from the records we have that the police knew about these attacks before they actually happened. They cannot say that they did not know who was involved. A couple of nights before my father died, he called me one night and asked me if I knew who shot our boys. I told him that I did not. He told me and made me swear to secrecy and I carried those names with me from 1981 until 2006 when the HET came in and was looking into the murders.
Anthony died two weeks after the shootings in very mysterious circumstances. It is our belief that he was poisoned. One Tuesday morning Seamus and my father were in Newry took a notion that they would go up to see Anthony in Daisy Hill hospital. When they went into the ward, Anthony's bed was empty. The nurse called them in and told them to go up to the sister at the desk. The sister told my father that there had been a security alert that morning. My father could not understand what that meant because he thought that Anthony would be safe. The sister told him Anthony was upstairs in the gynae ward. Just after they got out of the lift, they saw two men running out of the ward. One of these men had a gun. My father recognised the other man. Anthony was not in the bed there either. He was in a linen cupboard, lying flat out with the door closed and the bed pushed up against it. He had given an interview the night before on television and those men must have wanted to finish him off because he was the only living witness to all of this.
I am just saying it will be 47 years next year and we have been fighting and fighting for justice. We have been into this hearing and into that hearing and every time we get close, the British Government closes down whatever inquiry is going on. Now we have Jon Boutcher over and he is doing the Kenova and the Denton inquiries. However, there is no guarantee, if this Bill goes through that Jon Boutcher's report will ever see the light of day. It may never see it. At least the families now know most of what happened. There are two former RUC officers and a file has been sent to the Public Prosecution Service, PPS, recommending capital murder charges. It is some comfort to us, but I have been waiting almost all of my life and I am not going to live forever. I have a sister and she is coming up to 80 and we are never going to see any sign of justice or anything like that. I am just hoping that if this Bill gets through, the Irish Government will stand by its citizens. In south Armagh we all have Irish passports. We are all Irish citizens. We look on ourselves as Irish. We never ever felt part of a British system. We were a nationalist family and we were very fond of our GAA. All of the members of the family played football from way back in the 1940s. A team never came out of Whitecross or Drumharriff that did not have a Reavey playing. I am delighted to say that at the moment, we have six or seven young fellas, grandsons, all playing on the under-17 team. We are not going to be pushed away that handy. The British Government seems to think that after all these years, the evidence will be diminished and be no good.
However, when Jon Boutcher first came, I took him to my brother's house and I showed him his scrapbook, if you want to call it that. Jon Boutcher took that as part of his plan. Every time he went to visit victims, the first thing he would ask them was to see their scrapbooks. He would get more evidence out of them than from trawling through everything.
I thank the committee for giving me this opportunity. I am so sorry that I took so long but even if I was here for a week, I would never get finished.
I thank the witnesses. That was very powerful evidence from them. On a human scale, it was a total nightmare to have gone through those experiences, for family members to be murdered and to come across those appalling, evil crimes, and then to wait only to be faced with such an issue. This committee believes this legislation should not proceed. Before I open up the meeting to members, I would like to make clear that this committee has made a number of representations to the Attorney General's office. We have received a letter, which is in our correspondence, saying that his role is as adviser to the Government and he cannot share his legal views with us. That is an appropriate role for him. That is his legal role. We have invited the Minister for Foreign Affairs here to discuss that. I know our secretariat is arranging that visit as soon as possible to ensure the committee hears the views of the Irish Government on this issue. I am going to open up the meeting now, but we will keep it to 15 minutes each. Everybody is free to make points.
I have no problem at all. I proposed 15 minutes, but I have no issue at all with what people want. Our job is to hear the witnesses, to probe the issues and to get accountability at the end of the process. I have no issue with that, if Ms Hanna wants to propose that. We will leave it at ten minutes. When nine minutes are up, I will tell the person there is only one minute left. I may interrupt witnesses as well, so I ask them to bear with me on that. Is that agreed? Agreed. The first Sinn Féin speaker is Mr. John Finucane.
Mr. John Finucane:
I am going to ask a couple of questions and I know my colleague, Mr. Francie Molloy, is going to be speaking after me. I want to start by thanking Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey for their testimony. I know all too well that it is not easy to do. I recognise that both will feel it is very important the members of the committee hear from them directly. I want to put on record, and I am sure all members of the committee would agree, that we appreciate and are sensitive to how difficult days like today are. We are all united, as the Chair said, in our opposition to this Bill. My questions are to Ms Teggart and I say this respectfully now that we are down to ten minutes. The ten minutes will include both questions and answers. I know Mr. Molloy wants to come in after me. I would like to develop the inter-state case and ask if she could explain why Amnesty believes an inter-state case is necessary for this legislation, if it is put on the Statute Book or even before it is put on the Statute Book? In that context, has Amnesty had meetings with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Foreign Affairs or any Government parties at a formal level, advocating lobbying on taking an inter-state case? If so, what has the response been, if she can share that? If not, is that something that Amnesty intends to do?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
I want to answer those question in reverse. On several occasions I have met Department of Foreign Affairs officials leading on this area. In each of those meetings, I raised the need for an inter-state challenge. The reasons are multiple. This Bill from the UK Government represents its unilateral departure from previous agreements. The Stormont House Agreement was the first time we had a degree of cross-community consensus and a human rights compliant way forward in dealing with the past. With an inter-state case, the Irish Government can go straight to the European Court of Human Rights. I am mindful of the burden on victims and we have seen and heard from a number of them. Mr. Finucane is aware that right across the community, there is much discussion about legal challenge to this Bill should the UK Government push it through and it goes on to the Statute Book. We do not think it is right that the burden is only felt by victims. We will obviously be supporting the victims on those challenges. What we would like to see is the Irish Government commit to an inter-state challenge because that is the main tool at its disposal. The response we have got to this is that it is an option that will be considered, but a firm commitment has not been made. Given that we are approaching the latter stages of this Bill going through the UK Parliament, we think we are past the point now. The Irish Government should put a marker down. Preferably this should be done publicly and it should clearly state that if the UK Government puts this on the Statute Book, then that is the course of action it will take. That will obviously have to be done within a four month timeframe after which the Bill becomes law.
Mr. John Finucane:
In relation to legal challenges, I am aware that there was a judicial review taken post publication of the command paper and our courts in the North were reluctant to interfere in advance of a Bill becoming law.
It may be unfair to ask, but is Ms Teggart of the view that a family challenge, post the introduction of legislation to the Statute Book, could achieve anything more than a declaration of incompatibility?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
That will be the main remedy available to families. The concern is that domestic remedies have to be exhausted. A family or multiple families, depending on the nature of the challenge taken, would have to go through the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and eventually the European Court of Human Rights. As with other legacy cases, the process through the courts takes years, which Mr. Finucane only knows too well. However, the Irish Government could launch an interstate case, which is not without precedent. We have seen this in respect of torture in the hooded men case. Going direct to the European court would be an obvious appeal.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
I thank the families and Ms Teggart for their presentations. I had difficulty with my link earlier but am connected now. Having listened to Mr. Reavey and the families, it is a horrifying case, particularly when one hears the state involvement in it. From Amnesty's point of view, who was dealing with it? Is it being dealt with locally in the North, within the Six Counties, or internationally? How can that be expanded upon in the present time?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
In terms of the work and how this is prioritised within Amnesty, it is led by me in our office in the North. I work closely with colleagues in our Dublin office and they have joined me in meetings on this with the Department of Foreign Affairs. That is how it sits as a priority at present.
As to the international implications of the Bill, as a global movement we take the firm view that we are very concerned about the dangerous precedent the Bill could set, and that there are other authoritarian regimes across the world that would be happy to see the UK Government legislate in this manner. An amnesty as proposed in the Bill is, in many respects, internationally unprecedented. As members will have heard previously, it goes much further than other amnesties. Therefore, as a global movement we are concerned but the work is led locally.
In response to a question Mr. Finucane asked, which I should have responded to earlier, we have been engaging with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and a meeting with the Minister is pending. We have also been engaged in the UK universal periodic review, UPR, which is the United Nations review process. Through our engagement with multiple countries in that regard, we have been raising the issue of this Bill and the threats to the Human Rights Act. I understand several countries have picked up on those recommendations and have relayed them during the universal periodic review session today.
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
The international pressure has been important to this process. Amnesty has been engaging with the UN special rapporteurs and through special procedures, where various statements have been made, as well as through the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and with the advisers in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is our hope and we call on that office to make an intervention in respect of this Bill.
We co-ordinated with some of the US congressional interventions on this Bill and have been working closely with offices there. I have also been meeting with representatives from various arms of the US Department of State since the publication of the command paper. Therefore, I know this issue has been raised at meetings between the US administration and UK Ministers.
We hope the UK Government is paying heed to this. To be frank, despite the multiple, extensive and unequivocal interventions on this Bill, which clearly called out how it is not human-rights compliant, I am concerned the UK Government will not pull back from the Bill or that there will not be a pause in the process of the legislation. The UK Government does not appear to be re-entering into good-faith negotiations to agree a way forward with the Irish Government, which is a significant concern. I am aware the Secretary of State has indicated there may be some changes to the Bill, that they are listening to concerns and are open to that. I am not convinced that it is entirely sincere. I do not believe the consultation process has been adequate. What the UK Government has in mind by way of amendments to the Bill will be very different to what Amnesty and, indeed, victims want. They may include, for example, suggested changes to the date of application for the ban on civil actions. It could be that-----
Mr. Francie Molloy:
Can we lobby or put pressure on the House of Lords in that regard? I am aware of several protests being organised, including one for 1 p.m. on 23 November, in Belfast. Is Amnesty involved in co-ordinating such gatherings, maybe even along the lines of Westminster and the House of Lords?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
We are engaged in political advocacy with numerous peers, including cross-bench law peers, on this Bill and potential amendments to it. To be clear, we do not think this Bill can be fixed but amendments that would, in effect, gut the Bill and hopefully signal to the UK Government that it should revert to the Stormont House Agreement and engage in good-faith negotiations with the Irish Government and Northern Ireland political parties.
Before I go to the Fianna Fáil slot, I should inform those who are online that as a committee, we have gone to the United States and met Members of Congress, representatives from the Department of State, the British ambassador, officials from the British Embassy and Lord Caine. Several committee members will travel to Westminster next week to meet and lobby Members of the House of Lords and other politicians. I reassure those present of our commitment in that regard.
I thank Ms Teggart for her presentation. I assure her, from a Fianna Fáil perspective, that everyone is very much behind what she said earlier and what she is trying to achieve.
As the Chairman said, we are actively working to put an end to this Bill. It is reckless and it must come to an end. Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey outlined how victims across Northern Ireland are being re-traumatised. The cold approach by the British Government is reckless. What is going on is disgraceful. They sit in their Parliament and do not have any concern for the victims across Northern Ireland. It is unbelievable, in this day and age, that we are back where we are with a Bill of this kind.
I commend the Ancient Order of Hibernians, AOH, in the United States on their continuous lobbying and work not just in the United States but in the UK with parliamentarians, as well as linking in with us in this regard. I agree with what was said about the Bill breaching international law. We have been lobbying to get advice from the Attorney General. I thank the Chairman for sending an invite to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I look forward to him coming before the committee. If this legislation sees the light of day, we will certainly be looking for an interstate challenge. For those who do not know, could Ms Teggart outline what an interstate challenges consists of and why she believes it is the right approach?
When Lord Caine came before this committee, he was told in no uncertain terms by me and other members that the approach taken to doctor the legislation to make it look a little prettier was in no way acceptable. The unilateral action being taken is disgraceful. It is in breach of the Good Friday Agreement and other human rights laws. It does not have any respect for agreements reached heretofore between the Governments, east and west, and representatives of Northern Ireland.
The British Government should scrap what is there and get back to the table. Proper, open negotiations and discussions are the only way to move these issues forwards. It will be fought to the bitter end until that is done.
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
I thank the Senator. I will begin by expressing our appreciation and that of the victims we work with for everything the committee has been doing on the Bill and in particular the focus and extent of activities that have been given to this. That is entirely proportionate to the significance of what we are trying to address and ultimately overturn.
On the interstate challenge, the Irish Government could challenge the Bill at the European Court of Human Rights as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. That has happened previously, as we have seen, in the context of torture, where it was Ireland versus the UK in the hooded men case. The Bill can be challenged by the Irish Government and that is the option we believe it should take here. The Bill would need to be referred to the European Court of Human Rights within four months of its being introduced. There are also other international mechanisms, such as the UN Human Rights Council. That said, a judgment from the ECHR would be very compelling and obviously also legally binding. The UK Government would then have to address the myriad deficiencies of the Bill.
The Bill could also be challenged by a body such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission but we have separate situation there with the commission's being chronically underfunded for years. That weakens its current position and there is a question mark over the continuation of the underfunding and what that will mean for the commission's status. I understand that is something which is being addressed at the moment.
It is quite a short timeframe after the Bill becomes law but the Irish Government and all of us here can see a very clear trajectory for this Bill. We do not expect that the UK Government will listen to the concerns that have been expressed to an extent that would manifest in any meaningful changes to the Bill. Certainly, it is not one we see could be fixed. We are therefore in the circumstances of the Second Reading being due to happen in the House of Lords on 23 November. We do not yet have an exact timeframe for consideration Stage. Consideration Stage will be a critical moment for the Bill because it is the point at which amendments etc, will be considered. That usually happens a couple of weeks after Second Reading but it could well be late December or after Christmas that we see it. However, we expect the process will quickly come to an end. If and when the Bill becomes law, we need a plan, or certainly the Irish Government does. There has been mention of how victims and ourselves and others are considering various legal challenges but there is enough foresight and time here whereby we think the Irish Government can give consideration to what exact shape the challenge will take and then make plans to that end. That is something I will relay when I meet the Minister and in ongoing conversations with officials in the Department.
Week in, week out, we get very good presentations at this committee but the testimony from our three speakers has been really powerful. As my colleague, Senator Blaney, said, we agree with every utterance Ms Teggart made in her initial contribution. She showed great clarity in outlining the issues and how important they are. Mr. Reavey and Mr. O'Hare showed great strength and character in outlining the horrific trauma their families continue to go through. One phrase that very much stuck with me is Mr. Reavey saying "They tortured our family for 40 years." It is absolutely deplorable. Then there is the idea a parliamentary democracy would bring forward legislation to empower murderers to give themselves an amnesty in respect of heinous crimes. It is utterly deplorable any such legislation would be put before any houses of parliament. I have met Mr. Reavey over many years and compliment him on the great reconciliation work he has done. I have met him at different events over the years and he always engages with such grace and dignity. Mr. O'Hare is the same. They really show great character.
Turning to Ms Teggart, I go back to Mr. Molloy and Senator Blaney's points on the House of Lords. When we met Lord Caine, a UK junior minister, we understood from him the legislation would be brought before the House of Lords in early November. All present will recall from the committee reports of the House of Lords on the Brexit negotiations legislation that there are a number of Members of that House who are very well-informed about Ireland and Northern Ireland issues. Some Members served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and some as ministers of state. Having engaged with them over the years, they are important people with whom to have constant engagement. When we all of us have had the opportunity we have put very strong messages to those individuals, and to MPs as well, that it is utterly unacceptable that any government would bring forward measures to give people the power to absolve themselves of heinous crimes, including murders. Ms Teggart might elaborate on her engagement at the House of Lords and with MPs in the House of Commons.
There is only a minute left in this section and I want to be fair to everybody. I appreciate Ms Teggart cannot give a summary in a minute but perhaps she can refer to it in other responses as well, it is helpful.
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
I will squeeze in quickly to say the Deputy is absolutely right in what he says around this Bill. It is one that prioritises and shields perpetrators at the expense of victims' rights. We think that is utterly despicable, and the manner in which the Bill is being brought about is especially so.
On the engagement, it is cross-party so in the House of Commons, Labour is the opposition and has the shadow cabinet team. We also have strong relationships in the wider Labour Party and right across the House of Commons. In the House of Lords there are obviously various Northern Ireland peers but we also prioritise the crossbench peers and law peers, who fully understand the implications of this Bill.
Thanks a million to Ms Teggart and to Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey. That cannot have been easy. It was very difficult even to hear the amount of pain Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey's families have been through. I have heard Mr. Reavey's story before and met him a few times. It is always lovely to see him and I thank him for what he is doing today and for fighting the good fight, even though he has needed to fight it for far too long. My questions are probably in the same space. It does not happen very often but across the spectrum we are all united on this. There is absolutely nothing good in this Bill and we completely agree with our guests that it needs to be scrapped rather than changed.
My questions are, as I said, building on what others have asked. What sense do our guests have of what the changes the British Government is talking about might be? It seems to be trying to put window dressing on something completely unacceptable. Trying to get into the mind-set of the British Government, here is a Bill that has been criticised and condemned all round, including by the UN and the Committee of Ministers. Why do our guests think it continues to progress this regardless? I would like to get a sense of their perspectives on this. Here we are with a new Prime Minister but through the different iterations of the British Government, this Bill is going to proceed. Why is it so determined when it knows the impact the legislation is going to have on victims and on Northern Ireland and the fact that everyone is against it?
On how the interstate case works, what happens if it the Bill is made law and then successfully challenged? Does that mean the law is reversed? I would like a sense of what actually happens here for victims because I want to be sure we are giving the right hope or that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I want to know what that means. We are doing the right thing by challenging it at every step. The ideal situation would be that it is scrapped and does not become law at all but if it does become law and we challenge it, what happens if we are successful?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
I will start with the first point on why the UK Government is proceeding with this Bill. It has not shied away from setting out very clearly the driver of this Bill, that is, to achieve impunity for state actors. We have seen myth peddling and an inaccurate narrative around a witch hunt against soldiers. Let me be clear that there is not, nor has there ever been, a witch hunt. There are victims who have waited for decades for the truth, justice and accountability to which they are entitled. The UK Government has frustrated that at every opportunity. When the New Decade, New Approach agreement was published, the commitment to legislate within 100 days for the Stormont House agreement gave some of the victims we work with considerable hope, only for that to be very cruelly removed a mere six weeks later when Julian Smith was removed from his post. We had a new Secretary of State and then a statement was made to the House of Commons to signal the UK Government's departure from that. The UK Government's drive is impunity for state actors.
The Bill, through proposals for an the independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery and the very concerning extent to which the UK Government and the Secretary of State in particular would have control over the various mechanisms proposed, is effectively trying to rewrite history and curb the truth relating to some atrocities and what took place during the conflict coming out. While the inquest process is not a perfect system. We have some mechanisms that have delivered for victims. The Ballymurphy inquest is a more recent example. The official state narrative had been that the use of force was justified until that was determined otherwise. It is very clear why the UK Government is doing this. It has not shied away from it. I have noticed in the conversations I have been having with the US State Department that the spin the UK Government puts on this Bill varies depending on the audience. That is obviously incredibly cynical. We all see this Bill for what it is, namely, a de factoamnesty with a very clear intent to close down all paths to justice for victims.
With regard to the Senator's question on the ECHR challenge with regard to the inter-state case and the remedies, there is a question as regards interim measures and special measures. They will not have the effect of stopping the Bill. The Bill will become law and then we will get a binding judgment from the ECHR that the UK Government will have to address. The judgment will set out very clearly where the Bill breaches rights under the ECHR. The UK Government is bound to respond to, address and provide remedy to the judgment against it. This is not like deportation cases, as I understand it, such as those relating to Rwanda, where there is a threat of an imminent human rights violation in that a stay can be put. We need a very clear judgment from the ECHR that the UK Government will be bound to address and make remedy and reparations for, which would lead to a change of the Bill or its being scrapped.
That is really useful. Ms Teggart's view of the UK Government's intentions for the Bill chimes with everything we have heard and agree with. Does she see any hope on the horizon for a change in the direction of travel? I know that we are heading for the House of Lords and that Ms Teggart feels this Bill will be passed in its current form. The Bill might be changed to a certain extent, but we are heading towards it being passed.
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
That is certainly how it looks at present. The Senator also asked about the potential changes we may see. As there has been a total lack of transparency around the UK Government's position and how it is evolving, none of us really knows how it envisions that when it refers to being open to changes. My assessment is that it might think it would be acceptable to change the date of application on the ban on civil elections and allow those inquests that are already part of the lord chief justice's plan to continue. Of course, that will not be acceptable. I refer to the amendments to the Bill as low-hanging-fruit amendments. We are not engaging in those processes. Amnesty International is very clear that this Bill cannot be amended to be human rights compliant but it can be fixed. Therefore, the amendments we are interested are those which would have the effect of gutting the Bill and sending a clear signal to the UK Government that it has to go back to enter into good-faith negotiations with the Irish Government and our political parties.
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
Absolutely. I will be very clear on that point in that this is an amnesty that would apply to non-state actors. It would also include illegal armed groups. To be very clear about it, Amnesty International's concern is for all victims. They are all entitled to truth, justice and accountability. We wish to get a place where we have mechanisms in place to deliver for victims and vindicate their rights.
That is a very important clarification because, as a member of committee, I have met with people whose families were murdered by the IRA or other paramilitary organisations. The same evil has been perpetrated in all communities. I appreciate and fully support what you are saying. It is important that absolutely nobody can be let off the hook. For the first time in 15 years, a British Prime Minister will attend a British-Irish Council meeting today. That is very important. I am very hopeful there will be a change in British Government policy now that there is a new Prime Minister.
Ms Claire Hanna:
I will not go over the ground that colleagues have covered. They will be familiar with the SDLP's views on this Bill which would chime with theirs in the context of what we have been doing to oppose it in Westminster and to encourage and galvanise other actors in this space with regard to some of the other legal institutions and so on. We fundamentally believe that all the progress that has been made around the rule of law and strengthening justice institutions will be undermined by this as well. I thank Mr. Reavey and Mr. O'Hare for sharing their experiences. As Senator McGahon said at the outset , that cannot be easy. One of the big regrets we have about this Bill and the way issues relating to legacy generally have been dealt with over the years is that every time there is negotiation, those such as Mr. Reavey and Mr. O'Hare have to go through that and think it all through. The outcome gets a little bit worse each time for survivors and families. I am genuinely sorry about that.
Colleagues have touched on the prospects or otherwise of the Bill. We are hearing very mixed signals about intent and warm words about change and accepting fundamental change. Ultimately, however, the fundamental purpose of the Bill is inimical to justice for families. As we did when the Bill was before the House of Commons, we will put specific amendments to try to neuter parts of it but the fundamental core of the Bill is unamendable and it cannot go forward in any form that would be acceptable.. However, there are things we could do such as releasing and removing seals on documents. It could technically still be done within the words of what the UK Government is trying to do. The documents issue would affect cases such as that of Mr. O'Hare's family.
I wish to ask about the Boucher experience because that is where some glimmers of hope can be seen with regard to defeating the misinformation from the UK Government to the effect that nothing can be sorted.
It is relying on a belief that legacy is unresolvable rather than recognising that all paths to justice have been blocked, thwarted, unfunded and so on. I want to ask Mr. Reavey about his experience in that regard. We keep in touch with Jon Boutcher and Operation Kenova. We try to keep an eye on the latter's progress. I know Glenanne-related cases are one of Mr. Boutcher's major areas of focus. There is not a lot of time left, so I ask Mr. Reavey to comment briefly on his experience of that process, as a member of a survivor family, and his hopes for how it will play out.
Mr. Eugene Reavey:
I thank Ms Hanna. Jon Boutcher came to my house. He was accompanied by three or four policemen in a Land Rover. I said, "Jon, will you get rid of them boys from my back door", because having police outside your door in south Armagh is not a very good sign. Jon Boutcher is a proper gentleman and he has attacked all these problems in the proper manner. He has a great oversight team with him. He has people from America, Canada, Germany and everywhere else you could think of to make sure he is sticking to his job. The fact that he got access to all the files is significant. Nobody else got that access, not even the Historical Enquiries Team. He told me that, for the first time ever, he has full access to all the MI5 and MI6 files. That is a big thing. They all agreed that at the start and, even though there was a bit of a pull-back, he finally got it over the line. The team working with him were well versed. They were decent people when they came out. They did not tell me anything I did not know. Through the years, I built up a picture of what happened. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has now sent these files to the Public Prosecution Service, PPS. Jon Boutcher said that, whether an attempt was made to stop him or not, he was going to visit every family and tell them face to face what he had found. He is in touch nearly every week. If he does not contact us himself, his staff do so. He is very easy to meet and talk to. I met him several times in London when I was over at Westminster. He is a decent man. He will try to get everybody sorted, if he is allowed to do so.
Ms Claire Hanna:
I thank Mr. Reavey. I am conscious of time. If there were more of it, I would have asked Mr. O'Hare about the routes he and others would like to see. It may be that others will pick that up. I am aware the Chair will be keeping us to the time. I thank Mr. Reavey, Mr. O'Hare and Ms Teggart for coming to the meeting and engaging with us.
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
On Operation Kenova and information recovery with teeth, the narrative of the UK Government is that the passage of time has made it impossible to getting new evidence on cases or diminished the prospect of doing so. That is contrary to what has been shown in the case being pursued by Mr. Reavey in other cases on which we are working. I am also working with the McAnespie family on the case of Aidan McAnespie's killing. We are waiting for a judgment in a criminal trial relating to that case. There is no doubt that the passage of time has an impact but it does not completely diminish the prospect of new evidence. It is important for that narrative of the UK Government to be tackled head on.
Dr. Stephen Farry:
We are tight for time. I want to try to game out three scenarios and how they would impact on legacy in general but, in particular, the situations of Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey. The first scenario is that the Bill becomes law and there is a ruling from either the ECHR or the UK Government in the context of what is stated by the Council of Europe. In that situation, what damage would have already been done if the Bill becomes law? To what extent could things be unpicked?
The second scenario is that we get a Labour Government after the next general election, most likely in 2024. The Labour Party is on record as opposing the Bill. If it were to repeal the legislation in 18 months or two years, how much damage would have been done? What could be unpicked? What permanent damage would result from the Bill having been passed? Would that be prejudicial to future cases?
The third scenario relates to the Bill in its entirety being dropped by the UK Government or the process becoming extremely slow such that it never reaches a conclusion. There may be an election in the intervening period. If we go back to the messystatus quoof the Bill not being in place but, equally Stormont House not being operational, where does that leave both of the cases?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
On the scenario where we get a judgment from the ECHR, it is to be hoped that would be in an inter-state case. That is part of the reason that, as I mentioned earlier, it is so important that the Irish Government takes that case. That would short-circuit the matter by a number of years compared with victims having to take individual cases through the various domestic courts and then on to the ECHR. Once the Bill is passed and becomes law, it takes effect. It is difficult to answer the question exactly because we do not know, for example, how quickly the ECHR would get to the case, deal with it and issue a judgment. When the Bill is enacted, however, it will be law and it will stand until we get a binding judgment from the ECHR that clearly sets out the breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights that are within the Bill.
The point in respect of a Labour Government is an interesting one. Amnesty International is currently working on that in term of our recommendations to parties for their manifesto commitments. If there is a Labour Government after the next election, as looks possible, we want it to legislate to repeal that Bill, but also to legislate for the Stormont House Agreement. However, that does not address the point of what will happen if the UK Government fails to heed the warnings around the Bill and proceeds to place it on the statute book. The Bill would then take effect until it is repealed or we get a binding judgment.
As regards the scenario where the Bill is dropped by the UK Government point, we made calls to the former Prime Minister, Liz Truss, and are now making calls to Rishi Sunak. We currently have an action online that has received nearly 8,000 responses. Those are 8,000 direct emails that have been sent to the Prime Minister's inbox calling on him to scrap this Bill. At any point, Rishi Sunak can do the right thing, drop this Bill and vindicate victims' rights rather than betraying them in the way the Bill does. I remind the UK Government that this is having a daily impact on victims. A further slow process, with this being dragged out and victims not knowing if they will get justice, will continue to add to the trauma victims have experienced, and that is an utter disgrace. Rishi Sunak should recognise the impact the Bill is having, the strength of opposition to it and the well founded rights breaches that have been highlighted to the UK Government. He should drop the Bill and revert to the Stormont House Agreement or, at least, the negotiations with the Irish Government.
I am sorry. It is just a comment specifically on both these cases. Mr. O'Hare is seeking an independent investigation, which as we know will be closed down under this Bill. Mr. Reavey has a civil action under way, and there is now a file with the PPS, so we need to see at which point we see further progress made there and if that happens before this Bill becomes law or when it becomes law and takes effect.
I echo the thoughts of others and thank the witnesses for their powerful and very moving testimony. To be perfectly clear, and I think everyone here would agree, no party on the island supports this Bill. I can think of no other issue that binds us disparate politicians who disagree on almost anything. That shows the strength of opposition and how Her Majesty's Government has got this so wrong. In recent reports, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland commented on a host of different improvements and promised to make changes. Will Ms Teggart state if there are there any changes that could make the Bill worthwhile? Could the Bill be saved by amendments, or should the British Government simply scrap it?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
Deputy Costello is correct. The one thing this Bill has achieved - I used the word "achieved" very loosely - is to unite victims right across the community and political parties right across the island in opposition to it. One would think the UK Government would heed that, but so far it has not.
On the changes, as I mentioned, there is not transparency around the UK Government's thinking. I have a meeting coming up with the Secretary of State on it. As I indicated in my opening remarks, I will make very clear at the meeting that there are no minor amendments that can be made to the Bill. There are no amendments that can be made to the Bill that would make it human rights compliant. It is not a Bill that can be fixed, which is unlike other legislation we would work on where we would table amendments and make it human rights compliant. The Bill is so egregious that the only way forward is effectively for it to be scrapped and for us to revert to the Stormont House Agreement plus, because, as I have mentioned in our briefing, there were some issues in that agreement that had to be tweaked and addressed, for example, in regard to those who were seriously injured or who were victims of sexual crime. In doing so, the Stormont House Agreement would have discharged the UK's human rights obligations, and had it stayed with that commitment, we would have been seven or eight years into that process and victims would not be waiting in the way Mr. O'Hare, Mr. Reavey and so many others are for a measure of meaningful truth, justice, and accountability.
One of the other points that concerns me is that some of the reportage quoted the Secretary of State as saying he was listening to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and that its report had voiced concerns about the Bill. To be honest, I find that a little frustrating, to be polite, given that victims' groups have been campaigning for a long time against the Bill and against the proposals, even before the Bill was published, and the Secretary of State has not listened to them. To me, that speaks to a very poor view in Westminster on victims and the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives who, to a person, have been campaigning against the Bill across the community. That underlines the role of the Irish Government as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and its role in protecting the rights of people living in Northern Ireland. Going back to Ms Teggart's original point on the interstate challenge, we in the committee must underline the importance of that and the role of the Irish Government as co-guarantor.
I would like to ask the views of the other witnesses as well. It seems to those of us sitting here that the British Government has been completely deaf to the needs of victims. Is that the experience of the witnesses or is there anything they want to share with the British Government, positive or negative, on this entire process?
Mr. Michael O'Hare:
I would like to add to that. I am very negative about the actions of the British Government. It has tried to cover its tracks. It has tried to make sure it was not caught out in doing things that were obviously very wrong and could not be given clear accountability. I entirely oppose the Bill. It is an absolute disgrace that the victims should be left to mourn again after all these years. Mr. Reavey and I have been victims for more than 40 years and we have not had any response that is in any way compassionate. We must press on with our search for that. I do not think this Bill in any way, shape or form is good for the progress we had hoped to make.
I am sharing with my colleague Mr. Mickey Brady, MP. I thank Ms Teggart for all the work she has done on the issue. We have been meeting on it and we have been doing some work, but what she presents here today is extremely concise, up to date and very thorough. I thank her for that and for all of the actions she has taken both in her engagement with the Irish Government and with others, as named in the statement.
I have been a witness to the truth of Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey and it never gets any less shocking. It is very important to have what they outlined here today on public record in the context of the unilateral action that is being taken to conceal their truth and the truth of other victims. I thank them very much for that.
We have unanimous agreement across this committee on what needs to be done. We share the lack of confidence in the British Government to stop this unilateral action. As a committee, we must look at what we can do next. I propose that, as a collective, the committee would write directly to our Government, to An Taoiseach, to ask what preparation has been made for the interstate case. I know we have written to the Attorney General. We must also write to the British Government. We are the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and because of the consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, we must write as well as a collective from here. There is an opportunity for us next week when we are in London. I know we will all collectively make the best use of that time to see if even at this stage common sense can prevail.
I wish to ask Mr. O'Hare one question about how he felt when he got sight of the command paper. I will perhaps put that point to Mr. Reavey as well. Will Ms Teggart outline what type of preparation must be done by the Irish Government and how long it will that take? We have a 16-week period to do it once this Bill is on the statute book. What can be done so we can speed up the process at that stage?
That is probably my main question. I want to let Mr. Brady in to ask his question.
Mr. Mickey Brady:
This is really more of a comment. I want to thank Ms Teggart, Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey for the evidence they gave today. The murders as described were committed in my constituency. Knowing the O'Hare and Reavey families over the years and Ms Reavey particularly, God rest her soul, I am well aware of the trauma this has caused to the families.
In discussing the issues that have been raised, I also wish to mention another case of a 12-year-old who was murdered in my constituency in 1973. Kevin Heatley happened to be sitting on a wall in the Derrybeg estate when he was murdered by a British soldier from the Royal Hampshire regiment called Foxford. Eventually, Foxford was charged with unlawful killing and was released on appeal back into his regiment. Therefore, maybe that is an indication of the kind of justice we can expect from any British Government. There is no doubt that this Bill is designed to protect soldiers. It is not designed to protect anybody else. The more opposition that we can continue to raise against this Bill, the better. What is being proposed is abhorrent.
We had two cases of 12-year-olds being murdered. Two innocent children were murdered by British soldiers. Michael Williams, a paratrooper, shot Majella O'Hare three times in the back. He was never brought to justice. Foxford was the same. He was charged with unlawful killing and was released on appeal back into his regiment to probably continue to do God knows what. I want to make those comments. As I said, we heard the evidence given by Mr. Reavey and Mr. O'Hare today. All those murders happened in my constituency. When one looks back on what the Reavey and O'Hare families have gone through for 40-odd years, it is just unbelievable.
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
Let me say first of all that our view, and I know this is shared by the Irish Government and, indeed, this committee and others, is that the fulfilment of rights and the rule of law must be central to the legacy process. Very clearly, what we see with this Bill is the UK Government trying to legislate to put people beyond the law. This is obviously a very dangerous and concerning situation we are facing. It is part of this broader trend we are seeing from the UK Government at the minute. Through a series of Bills, it is about reducing and removing accountability from Government and various public authorities and, obviously, Government forces also. I want to stress to the committee that for the many years I have been working in human rights, I have not seen a piece of legislation that has been as concerning as this.
Much of the concern is coming out of the UK Government at the minute, certainly in terms of the extent of what this Bill proposes to do and the potential for it to impact elsewhere. When I met with the US Ambassador-at-large for Global Criminal Justice, Dr. Beth Van Schaack, she was also very concerned. She made it very clear that even through her work in holding up the Good Friday Agreement around the world in conversations around post-conflict societies and trying to reach being a post-conflict society, the significance of this Bill was not lost on her. She also shared those concerns.
I do not feel it is my position to set out to the Irish Government what its challenge should look like. Our submission and briefing, which the Department of Foreign Affairs also has, sets out very clearly which areas this Bill breaches, in particular, Article 2 and Article 3. Given that we do not expect there to be any real meaningful departure from the UK Government's position and what we see in the Bill currently, there is nothing stopping the Irish Government at this point in making those preparations, particularly with the short window of time that will follow if and when the Bill is passed.
On the question of how many families will be affected, as part of the inquest process at the minute there are those who, for example, have taken civil claims. On the day of the Bill being introduced, we saw a rush of civil claims and papers being submitted to court. There are myriad reasons why victims may not yet have put together their legal challenges.
The five-year cut-off point for reviews this Bill proposes very clearly is not European Convention on Human Rights compliant. That is not something the UK Government can do. It is something we expect the European Court of Human Rights would address and, therefore, also that the Irish Government would address in an inter-state challenge among the many points that would need to be raised with this Bill. For a range of families with whom we work, they felt betrayed when they saw the command paper, first of all. Then, the UK Government claimed it listened to some of the concerns expressed regarding the command paper and that was now reflected in what it was terming as "qualified immunity". As we know and as the committee is aware, the bar is obviously so low that, for example, a soldier would effectively just have to give an account of information to the best of his or her knowledge and then he or she would be granted that immunity. There is no room in the process. Nothing is being given over to the victims of the perpetrators. That is what I want to say on that.
Mr. Michael O'Hare:
Personally, I would like to reiterate everything Ms Teggart said. The covering up of wrongdoing is totally unacceptable. The vexatious claims some Ministers have lobbied at us are totally unfounded. People are asking questions that need answers. They are not just thinking it up. It is very important that they are not denied that. On that note, the Bill is totally wrong for us. It is not just about taking someone to court or anything. It is about getting the questions answered that need answering. People are not asking questions because there is no question. They are doing it because they need to be answered.
I thank our three witnesses for coming in today. The work Amnesty International UK has done in this area is so vital. It is appreciated by all of us here. We all agree that this Bill is an outrage. The unity that has been shown by political parties North and South in opposition to this Bill is really striking. It is exceedingly difficult to get them on the same page, which signals just how dire and despicable this legislation is. I was so moved by the stories of Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey, which I had never heard before. This was my first time hearing them. I cannot imagine the trauma and how it has been carried. You never get over it. Then, this Bill comes in and the families are retraumatised. It really saddens me that their parents never got to see justice. It is absolutely devastating. Mr. O'Hare said this Bill is despicable. It is horrific.
My first question is for both Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey if they do not mind. If this Bill is passed, which would be horrific but there is a very strong possibility that it will happen, how important would it be and what it would mean to the families and victims if the Irish Government sought to take an inter-state European Court of Human Rights case against the UK? How important is it for them as families and victims? What would it mean to them? That is what I would love to hear today. I hope the Department and Minister might be able to hear what that would mean for them.
Mr. Eugene Reavey:
I will go first on this.
The DPU has a very funny take on this because it is supporting the Government, which means some of the people working with the families of the victims of the Kingsmill massacre or any of those big massacres will not get any justice for their clients, or whatever we want to call them. Of the cases that are left, they are mostly all legacy cases. The British cannot win any of these cases. For years, we have been denied stuff. The one man that has stopped more cases in the North is now in the South, namely, Drew Harris. I have said this ten times. He was in contempt of court in the North many times. That man should have been in jail, not in the South as the chief law keeper.
This thing never leaves you. There is no such a thing as closure for any victim. Closure is not a word for us. If we got a law case tomorrow morning or we found out who did this, that will not close what has gone on up here. It cannot bring back your parents or other family members. Every time I go to a football match, I am thinking, Jesus, if only John Martin, Brian and Anthony were here and their grandchildren were out playing. We were robbed of all of that. My mother and father tried their very best. There were too good of people; that is what they were. They were too good to push harder because they did not want to offend anybody. They did not understand anything about the law. My mother was never in a courthouse in her life. When she went to the court in Newry, the judge said to her:
Stop this case for a moment. Mrs. Reavey, I want to ask you where did you suffer the shock when Fr. Hughes and Dr. Stewart told you your sons had been murdered. Was it when Dr. Stewart and Fr. Hughes told you in your sister's house in Camlough? Two, was it when it you came home to your cottage and you saw the police and army and all there? Or, thirdly, was it when you saw your sons lying on the slab in Daisy Hill Hospital?
That was very cold. Mummy started crying. She could not answer these questions and the judge said: "Mrs. Reavey, you are wasting the time of this court. Case dismissed." It is a regret of mine that I did not say anything more.
Everywhere we went, we were stopped at every course. The authorities have nowhere to go now with these cases only to pull out this legislation. It does not make any sense to anyone. It is disgraceful that they probably are going to get away with it.
Mr. Michael O'Hare:
I will respond to Senator Black's question. Truthfully, I think we need to implore the Irish Government for help to take this further. It looks to me like we are going to be facing the Bill going through. That is a reality we have to bear and face up to. I ask today that the Irish Government does everything in its power to help us recover the ground we might lose in the events of the next couple of months. That is basically my plea. I thank the Senator for her question but it is very obvious what we want.
I thank Mr. O'Hare. I have a few questions for Ms Teggart. She spoke a little about the timeline of the Bill and the urgency of the Government moving to take the inter-state ECHR case. Does she have any idea at all of how the Minister and the Department are thinking? I know she is awaiting a meeting but is there any indication at all as to their thoughts?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
The response I have had so far in meetings with the Department of Foreign Affairs has just been around the general options being considered. There has not been a firm commitment made, which is why we are grateful to have the opportunity today, through the committee, to make the call on the Department to commit to this. There should be a very clear message to the UK Government that if it proceeds with a unilateral election and if this Bill becomes law, this is the plan of action of the Department. I want to be clear that I very much welcome the unequivocal opposition to this from the Irish Government. We have seen that through a series of public statements and the calls for the UK Government to re-engage in the process.
That is all really welcome but there has to be a further plan because we are getting to the latter stages of the Bill's passage. Its Second Reading will take place in the House of Lords later this month, as we mentioned. Given how late in the day we are getting with the Bill, it is very important that the Irish Government put down a marker and signal it clearly to the UK Government. I hope that is something the Department will pick up and run with. As I said, we will be raising that through our ongoing engagement with officials and the Minister. When we have met with people around the UK's universal periodic review, UPR, people in the Irish Embassy and others, there is a very clear understanding that there is an expectation around a challenge of this nature, in recognition of the fact the parliamentary arithmetic is what it is and is not something we can change. If the UK Government wants to push this onto the Statute Book, the numbers are there to enable it to do so. This leads us to the inevitable question of a legal challenge. It will either be that the burden is felt solely by victims or the Irish Government can take the action we have outlined here today.
Before asking that question, I note that Deputy Tóibín has proposed that the committee send a letter to the Minister for Foreign Affairs calling on the Government to state publicly that it will take a case. I second that.
My final question relates to the fact that Britain's commitment to the ECHR seems uncertain, which is a frightening prospect. The Home Secretary made the convention a major target during her failed leadership campaign. What does Ms Teggart think the future holds for the Human Rights Act in the UK?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
That is a really good question. We are urging the committee today to give the same attention to the Human Rights Act as has been given to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill because its implications are far-reaching. The Human Rights Act has been critical to the realisation of rights in our post-conflict society and also critical in legacy cases. We now see it under threat. The Home Secretary has made very clear remarks about her preference for withdrawal from the ECHR. Taking into account how quickly things are subject to change at the minute in British politics, our current assessment is that something as significant as withdrawal from the ECHR would require a mandate.
We do not think that will happen but we will have to wait and see whether the Bill of Rights Bill, which is now set for return, will be as was proposed or if there will be some tweaks to it. We might see something around the Human Rights Act being disapplied in regard to specific issues such as migration, etc. At the minute, the expectation is that it will be the Bill as was, which, in effect, scraps the Human Rights Act. As we know, that Act is the vehicle by which ECHR rights are realised. There is a significant threat posed by the Bill. The Human Rights Act is also the vehicle victims will need to challenge the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill as well as other rights violations in other contexts.
We need to see the passage and how it will progress through the UK Parliament. We would be concerned,for example, as to whether it will get the same treatment as the Troubles Bill . Will we see another whole-of-House Committee Stage with a short time like two days or something similar? We expect and anticipate that it is coming up for Second Reading imminently. We would like to come back with a dedicated briefing on the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights Bill as is proposed and as will be moved and speak to the intricacies of what that Bill will mean in the North of Ireland and across the UK with rights protections. Like the Troubles Bill, the common thread is the undermining and breaching of the Good Friday Agreement by removing direct access to the courts and by removing remedies for breaches of the convention. The Bill is part of the trend we are seeing and that I mentioned, which is about removing accountability for Government and public authorities. It is deeply troubling.
I am back. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to get back in and I apologise for having to run off earlier. I had to head down to the Chamber to speak. I thank Ms Teggart, Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Reavey for their incredible presentation and testimony. I am so sorry to hear all of the shocking things that have happened to them on those fateful days and on subsequent days, weeks, months and years. It is incredible that any normal and civilised society would see that happen to anybody, never mind the State itself being the perpetrator of those actions. From the work I have done with people like the O'Dowd family, who are not far away from Mr. Reavey and Mr. O'Hare, to the work I have done with Denise Mullen, we have seen that these actions are not isolated ones but actions that happened to hundreds of families across the North of Ireland over a period. It is interesting because I was not aware of all the details, especially the ones Mr. Reavey mentioned, of what happened to the families subsequently, including those actions of soldiers and the shocking, horrendous and ignorant sentences that were said to a grieving family. The amnesty Bill, in many ways, is a continuation of all of that. It fits right in with exactly what has happened to these families before and it is not an outlier in the behaviour of the British state. It is a clear continuation of what happened in those original days. What is probably worse about it is it is clearly at the feet and hands of the British Government itself and that policy and what happened to the witnesses goes right to the top.
The issue we have been looking at pushing for a long period is the one that was mentioned by Mr. Finucane at the start and has been discussed since, namely, the idea of our Government taking either those cases themselves, as it did in the cases of the hooded men, or challenging the legislation itself on behalf of everybody who has suffered. I propose that this committee sends a letter to the Minister for Foreign Affairs asking him to publicly take the position that the Government will pursue this case in the European Court of Human Rights if this legislation progresses fully through the British Houses of Parliament. If we take an action like that today and if that leads to the Minister going on the public record that this is what the Minister will do, that would be a positive step forward for the cases of all of these families.
Many of the questions have been discussed and answered already but I might put the following question to Ms Teggart. Where are the Jon Boutcher inquiries? I remember about a year ago there was a blockage. Mr. Boutcher's inquiries were looking for documents from the southern State and the Garda but there was some legislation in place at the time which stopped that. The Government had promised that it would change that legislation to free up a pathway for those documents to be handed over. Has that blockage been fixed? Does the Boutcher inquiry have all the information from the southern State that it needs to progress?
Ms Gr?inne Teggart:
We welcome the Deputy's proposal; it would be an important step forward. We do not know what will happen but it would be great if the outworkings of that gave the UK Government further pause for that because it clearly says that if you do that, this will be the consequence. I cannot comprehensively answer the question on Jon Boutcher. The Deputy would need to speak directly to Jon Boutcher to find out where the blockages that he is dealing with are and how they have been addressed. I am afraid I cannot answer that question but in our engagement with Mr. Boutcher I am happy for one of us to get back to the Deputy on that. I would not try to offer an answer when it is better placed for Mr. Boutcher to address it.
I thank everybody for their contributions. We have a number of proposals and the first one is to reiterate what the committee has done. We have a communication from the Attorney General saying he cannot advise us of what legal advice he might give the Government because of the statutory duties that he has to the State only. That is the situation. We have invited the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come in. I would suggest that our secretariat is actively pursuing his presence. If Deputy Tóibín wishes to put down a motion on that for the next meeting, that might be the appropriate way to do it. If we get him in here, everybody can ask him whatever questions we like. If the Deputy will accept that as being a reasonable proposal-----
I want to be clear on this. At this hour there are few members here and I want to be fair to everybody. We are inviting the Minister in and I have no hesitation at all in supporting that we write to the Minister and ask him to do what he want him to, and I would vote for such a resolution, but I want to carry out due process.
We should not assume that because in fairness to the Minister, he has been here about three times and has always come in when we have asked him. The other point is that it is always the case that every party or individual can ask the Minister those questions by direct letter, parliamentary question, debate in the Dáil or putting down a motion. There is no issue and nobody is running away from the facts here.
We would not have any issue with that. We have other private business to do but I want to thank Ms Teggart, Mr. Reavey and Mr. O'Hare for their evidence and the case they have made for the human aspect of it, even after so many years. It is shocking, appalling and unforgivable and the wrong that has been done can never be redressed. To abuse a process that was agreed under the Stormont House Agreement and bring in legislation which would prevent putting the victims and their families at the centre of all that happens in the Good Friday Agreement, is entirely and absolutely unacceptable.
I acknowledge the humanity and the emotion of Mr. O'Hare's evidence and how profoundly distressing and disturbing it has been for him to have had to give it.
The committee will now go into private session if that is agreed. Did Deputy Tully want to say something?