Tuesday, 21 September 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this very important Commencement matter. Indeed, he was one of the many people who travelled to Belfast on 30 August. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, for coming in to address this Commencement matter. I am very conscious that this is an important and sensitive issue, and therefore I have given some consideration to my comments.
Senators and Deputies as well as representatives of the five parties in the Northern Executive met a cross-community group of victim campaigners in Belfast City Hall on 30 August 2021. This was a meeting of cross-community groups and all political parties on both sides of the Border. In July of this year, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Brandon Lewis, announced that he planned to introduce a statute of limitations banning prosecutions of Troubles-related killings and other crimes as well as all legacy inquests and civil cases before April 1998. We met victims' groups and the North's five main political parties which, along with the Irish Government, are all opposed to these proposals. One of the things about this issue is the great unity on the island of Ireland in regard to it, and indeed in certain quarters in the UK. We discussed the issues and concerns. There was a view that this was a de factoamnesty, and it is something people have major concerns with.
Representatives from the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance Party, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Senator Mark Daly, Senator Emer Currie and myself, along with Deputies Howlin, Costello and Lawless, signed a document of support stating that we totally reject the British Government's proposals for dealing with the past, including amnesties for those who committed murder, and supported the victims' campaigns and their efforts to stop the British Government's proposals. No individual group, organisation, state forces or agents can be immune from prosecution. Murder is murder and must be treated as such. Investigations, prosecutions, inquests and civil actions cannot be abolished and due process must take place, which the document we signed clearly states.
Listening to the campaigners, the common thread throughout was that they do not want the British Government closing off or closing down their opportunity to get truth and justice for their families, neighbours and loved ones. Subsequent to that, 35 US Congress members, including Mr. Brendan Boyle and Mr. Brian Fitzpatrick, signed a letter to the British Prime Minister calling for the UK Government to reaffirm its commitment to the Stormont House Agreement, which is critical to this debate and to these discussions, and they asked that the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, to scrap his proposals to ban future prosecutions in relation to the Northern Ireland Troubles. US legislators expressed concern that the proposed legacy laws would strain the British-Irish relationship and cement widespread feelings that justice is being denied. The US politicians went on to say that it is a serious mistake by the British Government to renege on its commitment clearly laid out under the Stormont House Agreement in the search for justice and reconciliation.
The British Prime Minister said that this amnesty would allow Northern Ireland to draw a line under its Troubles. One can never draw a line under the Troubles when people to not have the right to an inquest, to take civil actions and so forth to address this issue. It must be clear that everyone must be held to account, including military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries. We simply have to reject the British Government's proposal. The pathway to truth, justice and reconciliation must not be blocked.
I will be asking the Minister of State to take this back to the Government. Legal rights under European law and the Good Friday Agreement must be protected and vindicated. The Taoiseach is exceptionally supportive of this issue. That is encouraging and it encouraged the people we met in Belfast City Hall. They were highly impressed by the Government and the Taoiseach's solidarity with their plight and their concerns.
The Taoiseach is in the United States at the moment.The campaigners have asked that the Taoiseach and Government use their influence in respect of their European colleagues and the US Government.
I am also calling on the Cathaoirleach to write to our counterparts in the House of Lords and ask them for their support for the campaign for justice and truth. Many of us deal with them through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. They are our counterparts in the British Parliament. I know we have many supporters in the House of Lords. We should reach out to them and engage with them. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.