Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Northern Ireland

2:30 pm

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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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.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I would like to start by thanking the Senator for raising this most important matter. I wish to pass on the apologies of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who is out of the country at present and unfortunately unable to attend this debate.

As the Senator has outlined, the legacy of the Troubles continues to impact upon many families and communities across the island and beyond as they continue to seek truth and justice for their loved ones. It has been the consistent position of the Government that each of those families should have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice, regardless of the perpetrator. The Stormont House Agreement, agreed by both Governments and the political parties of Northern Ireland after intensive negotiations in 2014, sets out a comprehensive and balanced framework based on the essential pillars of truth, justice and reconciliation. Where the British Government is proposing significant changes to that framework, these must be discussed and agreed by both Government and the parties to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Only through a collective approach in line with international human rights obligations can we hope to deal with these issues comprehensively and fairly. As the Senator will be well aware, the Government has joined with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland in a process of intensive engagement on these issues, with discussions beginning in early July which are ongoing. Importantly, this process has engaged fully with victims representatives and civil society. The intention is to find an agreed way forward that will allow implementing legislation to be introduced in both the UK and Ireland by the end of the autumn. As part of this process, we are committed to working with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to address the painful legacies of the Troubles. We must find a way forward on these crucial issues to support wider societal recognition, build greater community confidence in policing and meet the legitimate needs of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland.

The Government has made very clear that any approach based on a general statute of limitations that would see an end to investigations and prosecutions of Troubles-related incidents would represent a very radical departure from the Stormont House Agreement. It is one that we cannot support. This view is shared and has been strongly expressed by every party and victims group and by people from all communities and with a wide range of experiences. It is for the British Government to take that response on board now. We have cautioned it strongly against unilateral action.

I welcome the work of Senators Boyhan, Currie, An Cathaoirleach and all the other Members of this House who engaged in that meeting in Northern Ireland. All of us working collectively from across the political spectrum get to make that point. It is a point that needs to be made loud and clear, because whatever the intentions behind the proposal, a proposal like this will not work if it does not have the support of all of Northern Ireland. It will undoubtedly be challenged in the courts, and if it fails, it will only add years of uncertainty and heartache for families with no gain.

We have consistently said that we are ready to engage with concerns or issues in respect of the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, but any such changes must be discussed by the parties and both Governments. The Government is also committed, as was the case at the time of the Stormont House Agreement, to fully play our part in collective efforts that will deliver for the legitimate needs of victims and survivors across both jurisdictions and for society as a whole. Go raibh maith agaibh.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. It is certainly something that I will send to the relevant people this afternoon. I wish to thank the Cathaoirleach for his support, and that of the Irish parliamentarians who went to Belfast. It was a very significant meeting. As the Minister of State will be aware through his many years of experience in politics, it is unheard of for there to be all-island, cross-party and none political unity on reaching a resolution.

When I left Belfast, having listened to and engaged with the people, my abiding thoughts were that I could have nothing but the height of respect for their patience, grace and determination to seek the truth. There were many tears shed in Belfast City Hall that day and many stories told on all sides of the fence and all sides of the Troubles.There were many heartaches, many sorrows and many stories of loss, hurt and disappointment. We must stand in solidarity with the people on all sides of this island and the islands we share. I know we will. I will take this opportunity to say that, since we met, Pat Hume, the wife of former SDLP leader, John Hume, sadly passed away. That was on 2 September, only two days later. She was an incredible person who was influential in many aspects of the peace process. I pay tribute to Pat for her commitment, courage and compassion in the service of peace and reconciliation for the island of Ireland.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I note the Senator's comments, which I very much welcome. The irony is that the British proposals have managed to create more unity on this island than Britain might have expected. This has been very positive. All of us, across all sides, have a shared hurt irrespective of our political viewpoints and different backgrounds. Through the Stormont House Agreement, we also have a shared approach as to how to deal with that hurt in an inclusive way. There is an onus on all of us to see real progress for victims and survivors of the Troubles across the island. If we fail to do so, we allow grief to be deepened and that burden to be passed on to the next generation.

There must be a framework for dealing with the past that meets the legitimate needs of families, that provides a real pathway to reconciliation and that, crucially, upholds other human rights obligations, including those under the European Convention on Human Rights. Achieving this requires a collective approach and such an approach is already set out in the Stormont House Agreement. Progress on implementing a framework that is consistent with the framework and fundamental principles of the Stormont House Agreement is critical to ensuring that these issues are dealt with comprehensively and fairly, providing a route to truth and justice for those who have already waited far too long.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the leader of the Opposition, Senator Boyhan, for raising the matter of the victims of the Troubles and their search for justice. I also thank Senator Currie for going to Belfast that day. It was truly a historic event given that it was the first time in the history of this island that all of the major political parties signed one document. It was a truly historic event in that respect but it was sad that it related to a cause that should not have to be fought for. The fact that Congressmen Boyle and Fitzpatrick, along with other members of the US Congress, signed a letter to the British Prime Minister asking the British Government not to go ahead with this legislation, that would deny justice and truth to families, shows the level of international outrage regarding this proposal. It should be borne in mind that a UK university has analysed this legislation and 300 other amnesties given since the 1990s and has described it as "Pinochet plus". It has said that it is a broader and more comprehensive amnesty than was given to the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, and his troops who committed atrocities during his reign of terror in Chile. I do not believe the UK Government wants to be associated with that type of historic record. As Senator Boyhan has said, the families deserve truth and justice. I thank all Members for participating in that event in Belfast on that day. We were delighted to be invited by Raymond McCord, who was leading the effort to prevent this legislation being enacted. I thank the Minister of State for coming in and outlining the Government's response.