All 5 Richard Thomson contributions to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023

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Wed 29th Jun 2022
Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage: Committee of the whole House Day 1 & Committee stage
Mon 4th Jul 2022
Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage: Committee of the whole House (day 2)
Tue 18th Jul 2023
Wed 6th Sep 2023
Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill
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Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

Richard Thomson Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 24th May 2022

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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Could I begin by thanking the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), in particular for the time he took to brief me on the contents of the Bill? Allow me to say that I very much appreciate what has been attempted here and the sentiment behind it. We certainly look to the memory of all those who lost their lives during the troubles, to the tens of thousands of those who were injured and to the families, relatives and friends to make sure that we approach this in the right way to get the right outcomes.

On 14 July 2021, the Secretary of State addressed the House on the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, and the view that he then expressed clearly was that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the troubles was “not working”. The paper that was published that day achieved something quite unique, I think, in Northern Irish politics in that it united every single spectrum of opinion in opposition to what was being proposed. We have yet to hear the substantive contributions of the Members who are elected to this place from constituencies in Northern Ireland who take their seats, but I suspect, notwithstanding the changes that have been made in approaches by the Government since then, that the Government may be about to achieve the same feat once again.

Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis
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Given the length of time that this has all gone on, is it not quite clear that there is no way that there is a single solution around which consensus can be built? Therefore, the Government are left with two choices: either do nothing and carry on as has been happening, or come forward with the best solution they can come up with, in the full knowledge that everybody who has been fighting among themselves without reaching a solution will find something to object to in it. The fact that they are all objecting to it by no means means that this is wrong; it is the only way forward, other than doing nothing.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. He is certainly correct that this is a very difficult and intractable set of issues that need to be navigated through, but if he really imagines that by introducing this Bill the Government are in some way cutting the Gordian knot, he is very sadly mistaken. I do not think that that kind of approach is the one that could yield the greatest amount of fruit. I do not believe that it needed to be the case that this was the outcome.

Stormont House was not agreed by everybody, but nevertheless it did provide a platform for a potential route forward. By failing to try to establish and build on what consensus there was in that, we are highly unlikely to reveal truth satisfactorily and we are certainly not creating the conditions whereby reconciliation might be achieved.

It is fair to say—certainly from the representations that I have received, particularly over the last 48 to 72 hours, from groups in civil society in Northern Ireland and from those who take an interest in the law and its application—that confidence in this process and this legislation is low. It is not being helped by the fact that we are here to discuss the Bill on Second Reading just days after it was announced formally in the Queen’s Speech. To only have two days in Committee here is, I think, thoroughly inadequate for the parliamentary scrutiny that a Bill of this kind deserves. It certainly does not pay the respect that I believe is due to victims groups and those with a stake in the outcomes here, in and across the island of Ireland and in veterans communities, to try to get us to a place of closer consensus.

In responding to the statement on 14 July, I was clear that I felt Ministers needed to think again about introducing any statutes of limitations or effective amnesties. I was also clear that, whatever proposals were eventually brought to the House, where independent prosecutors considered that there was sufficiency of evidence, a likelihood of a successful conviction and, most important of all, it was in the public interest to do so, they would still be able to bring those prosecutions. It is not simply about achieving truth and perhaps closure, and it is not necessarily about a prosecution resulting in a conviction; that investigative process and that testing of facts in a court of law, but even just simply the investigative process undertaken by the authorities, can in and of itself help to provide some of the closure that is required by the families.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford
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The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point about closure. I do not think that so far in this debate there has been enough conversation or debate about closure. Convictions are important, but we also need to make sure that the families of victims have the facts to bring closure—whether that is where the bodies of the disappeared are buried, how their loved ones were murdered, or if they had a glass of water before they were executed. Does he not agree that the Bill will make it more likely that some of these terrorists and people will come forward to give those details? It tries to bring closure for victims’ families.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. No, I do not agree with that and I will go on to explain in a bit more detail why.

As I have said, the Bill would clearly make that kind of continuation of the judicial process and the process of investigation impossible. So the question that I have been left wrestling with is whether the approach in the Bill can work and, if it can, whether the potential benefits of doing that outweigh the very negative and real consequences of bypassing the normal processes of the rule of law. I have to say that I have reached the conclusion, and my group has reached the conclusion, that they do not.

We have very deep concerns about the manner in which somebody might be granted immunity. There is a real danger that the process set out in the Bill as it stands actually puts more power in the hands of the perpetrators of past crimes or atrocities than it does in the victims’. The bar, as has been set out by the Labour shadow Secretary of State, is extraordinarily low in this respect. Simply to say that to give somebody immunity they have to request it but that what they then say has to be true to the best of their knowledge is not the sort of standard we should be hoping for in a completely open and accountable process of reconciliation and truth telling, because it means that there is absolutely no compulsion in there to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Even if we did wish to remove the process from a purely judicial setting, surely the very least we should expect from somebody seeking amnesty for their crimes is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth before such a panel or tribunal.

I will be interested to hear what the Minister of State has to say, when he sums up, about the exemptions that are to be granted on the grounds of national security and what the independent commission should or should not do. Clearly, we would not want the commission to do anything that would imperil national security, but we can all see the potential conflict between revealing information that is held on file and the use of the national security clause to draw a veil over it. The process of reconciliation will require some hard truths, not just from the UK Government but, I suspect, from the records of the Government of the Irish Republic. Having that prohibition in the Bill potentially represents a further tilting of the balance away from revealing the truth and delivering justice.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the Bill is the way in which it seeks almost to bring down the shutters on families who have already engaged in inquiries or in the process preparatory to inquiries. To remove the rights of individuals to pursue a criminal or civil remedy appears to me to be in clear breach of article 2 of the European convention on human rights, and therefore aspects of the Good Friday agreement, as the convention is hardwired into it.

My reasons for opposing the Bill are ones of principle, articulated by those with a care for the legal and constitutional implications of what is before us, as well as the many strong and clear voices of those who have been affected by the troubles. In the light of those real concerns, I remain unpersuaded that the goal of truth and reconciliation will be more likely to be achieved by this process, or that it justifies setting aside the norms of the rule of law and the fundamental rights of the individual to seek recourse or to uphold their rights through the law.

I am also bound to observe the dismay of the Irish Government at the proposals. At a time when open dialogue and good will are in greater demand than they perhaps have ever been as far as the present UK Government are concerned, it is a missed opportunity to go about this process as they have, rather than try to find a way in which both Governments’ sets of records could be made available and open up a process applicable to all victims on both sides of the border.

Operation Kenova shows what can be done when police investigations into historical inquiries are allowed to take place. It is not good enough to point to the backlog in the PSNI historical inquiry unit as a reason for introducing the processes in the Bill. That backlog is an argument for adequately resourcing the PSNI so that the historical inquiry unit can complete the work it was tasked to do.

I do not think that reconciliation is something that can ever be imposed. It is something that has to be achieved. The legislation is being imposed, to the great distress of many, and that is unnecessary. The Bill in its current form is not one that my party can support.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

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Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

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Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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I was going to say that the imprimatur of a pre-appointment hearing by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and/or the Justice Committee, along with, possibly, the scope for an affirmative vote of appointment in this place, would provide an element of clear water between the Secretary of State, by dint of his or her office as a representative of the Government, and the commissioners who will be discharging such important duties. If those candidates could secure strong, hopefully unanimous but certainly cross-party and cross-community support, as represented by the parties in this place, that of itself might just provide—although there is no guarantee—a wee crumb of comfort for those who would ask, “Who identified these commissioners, who appointed them, and by what mechanism were they appointed?” In other words, this would not be an appointment arranged behind closed doors; there would be an element of the disinfecting benefits of sunlight, transparency and openness. That is what underpins amendment 92.

Amendments 77 to 82 effectively restrike a balance in suggesting that the authorities from whom information is required for the purposes of an investigation should not be able to deem what is “reasonably” handed over. That is not for them to interpret. They should hand over the whole box file, folder or whatever it might be— it might be a microfiche film—so that the commissioners and those leading the inquiries can see it all. As I have said, I am not pressing the amendments to a vote this evening, but I hope that the Government will consider these proposals as the Bill progresses.

I tabled amendment 83 because I do not think it is for the state to decide who is an “appropriate” member of the family to request a review. The amendment would allow family members to apply for a review, rather than there being a narrowly prescribed list of appropriate family members.

Amendment 84 addresses what I call the cock-up problem. Someone may have completed a form requesting a review, but may not have completed it properly. Those who look at it to see whether it gets over the first hurdle dismiss it, because there has been an administrative error on the part of the person filling it out. That person may not have had access to professional legal advice or guidance. There should be an opportunity for the commissioners to point to errors, not errors of substance but errors relating to boxes not ticked or to the language used, for instance, and to say, “Go away and make these amendments, and the request can then be submitted.” Under the Bill as currently drafted, a person makes a single application which is judged on its merits. According to my reading of the Bill, if the application fails on the basis of a technical aspect, it cannot be resubmitted.

I am not going to spend the time of the Committee rehearsing the approach to rape and sexual offences, which we have been discussing. It is set out very clearly in amendment 115, tabled by the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), although my amendment 85 is similar.

For those who are diametrically opposed to the Bill or who wonder about its article 2 compatibility, I think the courts should be able to determine that when it becomes an Act and is under progress. However, I say to the Minister that there is scope here, after a little quiet reflection, to introduce those elements of transparency and sunlight in order to deal with this. Another point relates to the proposal that if a commissioner is rendered incapable, falls ill or is taken off the case, the application for immunity could continue to be heard by that panel, but with a new voice. We would not do that in a court. We would not have a judge suddenly change halfway through. They need to hear all the evidence from beginning to end. To change halfway through would be like trying to watch a film from halfway through and to work out whether you liked it or not. The end might have been great but the start might have been hopeless, or the other way round. I do hope that the Government will give consideration to my amendment on this, which proposes that the same people should hear a review case from start to finish. If, for whatever reason, one of the panel could not do that, there would be a bit of an administrative time lag but a new panel would have to hear the case again. That could involve two of the same people, but having the same three people listen to the whole of the case is important on the ground of natural justice.

A perfect Bill? No. A Bill that has good intentions in it? Yes. I am encouraged by the response and tone not only of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State but of the other parties, and I pay particular tribute to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who has set out his frustration very clearly. It is one that he and I share on this. There are many issues on which the House will almost take pleasure in being on different sides of the debate in a vote, but I say gently to those on the Front Bench—I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is more than cognisant of this—that the issue of rape is not one on which we want to see political division. It is just too heinous and horrible. I say that as a husband and a father of daughters. One just does not want to be playing politics with that issue, and I think the Committee is probably with me on this.

I hope that, through the usual channels, we can find a way in which the very best of this House can be reflected on this sensitive issue. This is a democratic debate about making this right for people who vote for us, and I look to the business managers—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) and others—to ensure that we have time in this place for a proper Report stage, perhaps through an amendment to the programme motion, to give those on the two Front Benches a window of opportunity to address this important issue.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I am sure that whatever view each of us here today takes of this Bill, from whichever vantage point, we all feel a great weight of responsibility in dealing with these matters. I am mindful of the time, so I will keep my remarks as brief as I possibly can. The Scottish National party has serious concerns about the Bill and the approach that has been taken to it in terms of its principle. I have been clear throughout, leading on this for my group, that where independent prosecutors consider that there is a sufficiency of evidence and the likelihood of a conviction, and where they judge it to be in the public interest to do so, they should still be able to bring forward these prosecutions. I am sorry to say that this Bill and the general principle behind it utterly squash that prospect. I do not intend to reprise my arguments from the Second Reading debate, except to say that we do not believe that the goal of achieving truth and reconciliation is advanced by closing down the prospect of further investigations that can be conducted to a criminal threshold, or indeed by setting aside the norms of the rule of law and the fundamental rights of individuals to seek recourse through that law.

The SNP has not tabled any amendments. We oppose the fundamental principle behind the Bill, and we do not believe it can be amended into acceptability. I am quite up front in saying that we will continue to oppose the Bill. That said, if the Bill is going to pass, which it certainly will, there are aspects on which we will join others in trying to improve.

In that vein, I place on record our very strong support for amendment 115. I heard all the dialogue with the Minister, and I do not doubt his sincerity on this for one moment. If the wheels are whirring behind the scenes on how a possible compromise might be brokered before we conclude our business tonight, all well and good. If not, I strongly urge him to accept the amendment and, if necessary, improve it elsewhere. We do not want to divide on this, but we cannot go another day without having clarity on how sexual offences will be treated under this Bill.

I listened closely to the arguments advanced for the other amendments, and we will approach the remainder of today’s proceedings on that basis.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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I spoke in support of the Bill on Second Reading, although I highlighted several frictions and concerns that may merit further work, which is where we are today.

The people of Northern Ireland, our veterans and those directly affected must be at the heart of this Bill, and I hope to offer a wider perspective that may be of use. On Second Reading, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), said:

“Is the Bill perfect? No, of course it is not, and no legislation is, but let us not lose the good, or at least the intent to achieve the good, in pursuit of perfection.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 195.]

That is where I think we are today.

We know what the Bill does, as it has been covered a lot over the past few weeks and months: it establishes an independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery; it grants immunity from prosecution to those who engage with the commission—this is a key point—on a case-by-case basis; it ends, in theory, troubles-related criminal investigations and protracted legal proceedings; it commissions a historical record of every troubles-related death; it covers memorialisation; and, importantly for me and for many others, it does not provide moral equivalence, which is an important improvement on the draft Bill.

The lingering concern of many I have spoken to, both here in England, Wales and Scotland and over the water in Northern Ireland, is that perpetrators may now never be brought to justice and the truth may never be known, notwithstanding what the Bill says it does on the tin.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

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Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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As I understand it, conversations are ongoing about how that objective can be achieved—[Interruption.] No, it is not as simple as that. I have been a Minister and seen amendments that, on the face of it, looked like they would improve a Bill, but the reality is that certain things cannot be done because of how other legislation bumps up against them. Legislation must to be crafted in the correct way. As I understand it, Ministers are looking at that with the Opposition and they will ensure that there is no gap in the legislation that allows for terrorism to be glorified.

I have sat through all the speeches and every minute of the Bill’s passage, and I am afraid that I repeatedly hear things that are not true. We all have a responsibility to deal with this issue not as though we are speaking to our home crowd but as it actually is. If not, ultimately, the people who will lose out are families, victims and veterans. For me, they have always been at the heart of the debate, and I hope that we can continue to hold them there as we progress.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I will attempt to emulate previous speakers in trying to speak for the shortest possible period, although as I spoke for only 2 minutes and 40 seconds on day one, that might be something of a challenge given the interest in the amendments before us. Nevertheless, I will do my best.

I turn first to amendment 114 and new clause 2, which seek to prevent people from profiting from conduct for which they have been granted immunity. That seems to be, at the very least, the baseline outcome for which we should look from any such process. It is unconscionable at the best of times for people to profit in such a manner from crimes that they have committed, and particularly so when a status of immunity has been granted. On that basis, that amendment and new clause have the SNP’s support. As, indeed, does amendment 116, on keeping troubles-related inquests open.

I have been clear throughout that our preference is to allow historical inquiries to continue and for them to be properly resourced, not necessarily with any huge expectation of convictions but simply to allow a police-standard inquiry to continue and to keep hope alive. That seems to be at the heart of what many of the families of victims are seeking most from the process. Flawed though the legislation is in principle, it would be easy for it to resolve the situation of closing down not just investigations but promised investigations simply because of their order in the queue. It would be easy for the Minister to resolve that, so I hope that he will consider the amendment and incorporate that into the Bill.

I said on Second Reading that I thought the immunity process placed a pretty questionable obligation on those seeking immunity to tell the truth, and that requiring them to do so only to the best of their knowledge and belief is a considerable distance short of being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. To that extent, the SNP very much supports new clause 5 to the effect that, were evidence later to come to light that someone granted immunity had failed to meet condition B in clause 18, that immunity would be revoked. I do not think that immunity, once granted, should always be forever if it was found to be achieved through someone acting in bad faith. Again, I accept that the bar for that would necessarily be high, but nevertheless that seems to be a baseline output from a Bill being driven by such principles.

I turn to new clause 4 and the aggravating factor of glorifying terrorism. I very much appreciate what it seeks to do—we would all deprecate any attempts to glorify terrorism—but I am less certain about how it might work in practice or how solid it is. However, I look forward to hearing speeches on that. We will listen carefully to the arguments.

Finally, I will briefly address some remarks to new clauses 6 and 7. New clause 6 would be a valuable addition to the Bill. I accept the Minister’s good faith on how the state would intend to open up its records, but it would place in legislation a duty of openness on the Government, not just on opening up files but on specifying those that have not been opened and giving some narrative on that. That would be a worthwhile addition to the Bill.

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. To speak to his wider point, the right of access to judicial review is a fundamental right for any individual against an overreaching Executive or Government. It is only right that that route should remain open to people, notwithstanding the Bill. To incorporate that right in the Bill would provide a very important safeguard for people. I urge the Minister to ensure it is there, so that that right is not in question at any stage after the Bill is passed.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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First of all, we understand how sensitive the whole issue of legacy is: we live with it every day in Northern Ireland. We get representations from our constituents about it and there are varying views, but the one thing the Government have to be aware of is just how much opposition there is to the proposals on the table tonight. We have tabled amendments that we believe would improve the Bill. Would they make us vote for the Bill? No, they would not. But at least they would improve the way the Bill operates for victims and how it addresses the unfairness that those who involved themselves in terrorism will now be able to walk away free.

If we look at the terms of the Bill and what victims get out of it, we can see why there is so much opposition to it. We welcome the fact that the Government have now accepted the proposals put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on ensuring that those who were involved in sexual crimes do not use the cover of the troubles and their involvement in paramilitaries to be granted immunity, but there are other proposals that I believe are equally compelling, and the Government ought to look at them. First of all, from the victims’ point of view—this was mentioned in the last point made by the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson)—those who want to take civil actions can now no longer do so. Those were the only avenue open to many people. Indeed, in the case of the Omagh bomb and others, we saw how people were able to at least try to overcome the deficiencies in the police investigation. What is on offer for those who are victims?

Terrorists who co-operate and tell the truth, at the end of the day, after they have admitted their role, will walk away with no sentence at all—no time in jail. They are free; they are immune. Those who do not co-operate can still be subject to an investigation, but there will be no outcome at the end of it, other than if they are successfully prosecuted. Their crime will be highlighted but they will not pay any price for it.

For those who, laughingly, go into the process and tell lies, and hurt the victims more, there will be no sanction either. One amendment we have tabled will ensure, if the Government accept it, that those who knowingly lie in the process at least know there will be a sanction on them. It is a reasonable amendment, and the Government should accept it. Otherwise, there is no incentive for people to go into the process and tell the truth. The Government may well argue, “Why would you go into the process if you don’t intend to tell the truth?” The fact of the matter is that here are people who engaged in murder and terror for so many years. It may well be that simply to avoid the prosecution process, they are prepared to go in, hoping that nobody actually knows and has sufficient information to expose the lies they are telling. But if they knew there was always the chance that, having been caught in those lies, some sanction or penalty would be imposed on them, then we may well get at least some indication. They would know there was some penalty involved at the end of the day.

On the amendment on the glorification of terrorism, this is a big danger. We have seen it already with members of the IRA, some of whom are now MLAs in Northern Ireland. They committed crimes, escaped from prison with a prison officer killed and now go around boasting about it. It is how they pack people into their dinners for fundraising. They write about it in books and make money out of it. The real danger of the Bill is that once they have been granted immunity, they will be totally free to do that without any comeback at all and with no sanction imposed on them.

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I, too, thank everyone who was involved in the passage of the Bill, both those behind the scenes, such as the Clerks and the researchers who have kept everything moving, and everyone who has contributed to the debate on the Floor of the House. I was struck by what the Minister said just now—that he hoped that the passing of the Bill would help to put the dark, dark days firmly in the past. I certainly hope that as well, but from what we have heard in the House during proceedings on the Bill, and from what we have heard from the victims and their representatives, I fear that is a forlorn hope. I certainly commend the Minister for the amendments that he did feel able to accept, but I remain of the view that this Bill is wrong in principle and cannot be amended into acceptability. Fundamentally, the Bill lacks support across Northern Ireland and it will leave many feeling that justice has been denied, without the prospect of truth coming to the fore. Although I have no doubt that the Bill was well-intentioned, I do not believe it will live up to the hopes the Minister has for it. Sadly, it did not have to be like this.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill Debate

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Peter Kyle Portrait Peter Kyle
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. These are very difficult issues and of course I understand why people want to speak in support of people who have served in our armed forces. I feel this intensely and strongly myself, coming from a family where one of my parents—my father—served in our armed forces.

I will come to the issue again later in my speech, but I will go into it in some detail now. The only recent case against a member of our armed forces is that of David Holden, a member of the Grenadier Guards, and it is worth reflecting on the judge’s summing up in that particular case. Paragraph 105 of the judgment says:

“Instead, according to his frankly incoherent evidence, he put his right hand on the pistol grip which somehow resulted in his finger slipping onto the trigger and doing so with the significant pressure required to fire the weapon. I do not believe that evidence. I conclude that it is a deliberately false account of what happened.”

Paragraph 120 says:

“To summarise the conclusions above I find that it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt that…the defendant lied repeatedly to the police.”

If this case had come to light after the Bill had passed, prosecution would not have been possible. I do not believe for a second that this case and the person responsible—David Holden—reflect the values that we expect from those who serve in our armed forces, and that the vast majority of people who serve in our armed forces expect from their fellow members.

After five years, the Bill provides a general amnesty for anyone and everyone, as the independent body will wind up. All other investigations, inquests and civil cases will be shut down. It is clear that the Government have chosen immunity to satisfy some on their own Benches. They say veterans face “a witch hunt” in Northern Ireland; that is the phrase used by the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Sir Brandon Lewis). I do not believe that that is the way that we should frame or explain the reconciliation challenge of Northern Ireland. The vast majority of our soldiers served with distinction in the most difficult of circumstances. There can be no equivalence drawn between their actions and those of terrorists, but that is precisely what this Bill does. Where standards were not upheld, it is important that there is accountability. There have been a total of six military personnel charged with offences related to the troubles, two of which cases are currently ongoing. What has changed since this Bill’s inception is that there has now been a conviction of the former Grenadier Guardsman, David Holden, for the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie. We cannot ignore the fact that this Bill is designed to stop the outcome that the McAnespie family finally achieved.

I also wish to put it on the record that veterans are victims too. The IRA shot Private Tony Harrison five times in the back while he was sitting on the sofa at his fiancée’s home in east Belfast in 1991. His family have been clear that they do not want immunity for his killers. I would be a lot more sympathetic with the Government if their approach had been to try to secure justice for more, not fewer, people.

This Bill will affect the entire United Kingdom and our reputation abroad. The families of the 21 victims of the IRA Birmingham pub bombing have been clear that they do not want immunity to be on offer. In November, the chief constable of West Midlands police confirmed that files had been passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service. Immunity will be open to that suspect if this Bill passes before a decision is made. Voting down Lords amendment 44 could shut off justice for families who have waited 50 years, right at their moment of greatest hope. There is still time for the Government to pause and reconsider this approach, just as the Irish Government have formally requested. The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement is the moment to reflect on the power of consensus. To pass this Bill with immunity would be to fly in the face of everything that we know about progress in Northern Ireland; it should not happen.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I do not intend to spend long on my feet, as I have made all the points that I would seek to make on this Bill at previous stages. It is also important that we get to hear as many voices as possible from Northern Ireland.

I will make just two points: first, that reconciliation is something that is achieved, not imposed; and, secondly, to hold fast the principle that, where there is a sufficiency of evidence and an independent prosecutor decides that it is in the public interest, a prosecution should be able to go ahead. That is why the SNP continues to oppose the Bill, notwithstanding the amendments that are on the table today. I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that, without that ability to pursue justice, reconciliation becomes less likely.

I appreciate very much the steps that the ministerial team—this iteration of it—have made in seeking to address the concerns that have been raised, but that fundamental point of principle about denying prosecutions, and therefore in our view justice, remains. That is why my party will support Lords amendment 44 this afternoon.

We also support Lords amendment 20. We think that Operation Kenova sets the gold standard for the investigative processes that should be carried out, and particularly the commitment by the Government to pursue all evidential opportunities. The Secretary of State has been keen to stress that he is offering great assurances on ECHR compliance. I have to say that we remain without the assurances that we need, and if Lords amendment 20 were to be put to the vote tonight, the SNP would certainly support it.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I am well aware that time is limited; you will be pleased to hear, Mr Speaker, that so too is my capacity for repeating arguments that I have made many times previously. My party believes that this Bill is wrong in principle and that in practice it will not achieve the aims that the Secretary of State believes, no doubt with great sincerity, that it will. We will therefore be joining the official Opposition in voting to support the Lords amendments.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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I am grateful for the contributions made by Opposition Members thus far. A number of comments have been made this afternoon that relate more to Second Reading than to the stage we are at. It should come as no surprise to those in the Chamber to hear that to us this is an irredeemable piece of legislation. Even though we were highlighting in this Chamber on Second Reading and so on the areas where significant flaws were ultimately going to prove fatal to support for this Bill, the Government entrenched themselves. On a number of discrete issues, they committed in this democratically elected Chamber, where they ignored our requests, that they would proceed with such amendments in the Lords. I find that unsatisfactory, although I recognise that my colleagues in the Lords continue to push on those issues. With Lords Dodds principally among them, they have ensured that some of the commitments given have been honoured. However, that does not change the fact that this is a fundamental assault on justice, with the erosion of hope for victims and of the opportunity to get the answers they seek and the outcome they desire. Those things have been snuffed out by a Government who have entrenched themselves, and I greatly regret that.

This afternoon we have an opportunity, with discrete and sensible amendments before us, as the shadow Secretary of State has said. They were tabled by the Labour party in the House of Lords, and were advocated and supported by Members across the other place yesterday afternoon. This is an opportunity for the Government to salvage at least some appropriate involvement for victims, whereby they can have their say and a sense of the outcome that they seek.

A contribution was made yesterday by Lord Eames, and it is worth repeating. He said:

“Yes, there have been attempts to bring the concept of victimhood into the legislation that is proposed, and yes, the Government can claim that they have made efforts, but, in God’s name, I ask your Lordships to consider the overall impetus of what changes have been made to try to recognise the needs of victims and their families, and of those who, in years to come, when they read what has been said, attempted and failed to be produced, will find it incredulous to understand that the Mother of Parliaments has ignored their crying.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 September 2023; Vol. 832, c. 343.]

Those words were worth repeating this afternoon because Lord Eames is somebody who has led the Church of Ireland but is in this Parliament as a peacemaker, and who went through an ill-fated attempt to reconcile issues of legacy in the past, in a consultative report with Denis Bradley in 2009. Within this Parliament and within our society, he is somebody who probably buried more people in Northern Ireland during the troubles than anyone else. When he exhorts in such clear terms that there is an opportunity finally for the Government, at this last gasp, to show some recognition of the pain, trauma, harm and pursuit of justice that victims show, the fact that this Government would not accept it is a great shame.

The list of organisations has been given—it was given by a former Secretary of State, Lord Murphy, yesterday in the House of Lords and by the shadow Secretary of State here today—showing the lack of support for the legislation. We will go through the Lobby this afternoon to register yet again our disappointment at a failed opportunity by this Government, who are more focused on what they can get out of this Bill as they campaign for the forthcoming election than on solving the intractable issues that have plagued our society for so long.