Two senior US politicians have criticised moves by the UK government to make a key appointment under its controversial legislation for dealing with legacy issues arising from the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Democrat Bill Keating, ranking member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Europe and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, chair of the permanent select committee on intelligence, said the move was “premature, unproductive and threatens the fragile peace established by the Good Friday Agreement”.
Last week the Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris announced the appointment of Sir Declan Morgan as chief commissioner of the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).
The appointment would take effect after the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill received Royal Assent and the establishment of the commission, “taking account of any further considerations and final requirements of Parliament”.
The ICRIR is a key element of legislation planned by the UK government “to address the extremely complex and sensitive legacy of Northern Ireland’s past”.
The UK government said it would be “an arm’s-length body” that would operate independently.
In a letter to Mr Heaton-Harris on Monday, congressmen Keating and Fitzpatrick said they “continue to remain gravely concerned by the proposed Northern Ireland legacy legislation”.
“We have heard from parties across communities in Northern Ireland that this bill would deny justice to victims of the Troubles and conceal the truth of the past. As such, we are disappointed by the decision to appoint a chief commissioner to the ICRIR, even before the Legacy and Reconciliation Bill has been enacted into UK law.”
“We believe such an appointment is premature, unproductive, and threatens the fragile peace established by the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr Keating and Mr Fitzpatrick said the celebrations and commemorations that took place last month surrounding the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement), the recent negotiation of the Windsor Framework, and the immense potential for economic growth in Northern Ireland were “indicative of the progress that has been made to ensure continued peace and stability in Northern Ireland”.
“As representatives of the United States, which was instrumental in helping to forge the Good Friday Agreement and has supported its implementation for the last 25 years, we urge you to prioritise justice and accountability for victims of the Troubles and refrain from actions, such as this, that threaten cross-community support for the Good Friday Agreement.”
The congressmen said the United States felt an obligation to support continued efforts to implement the “historic” Belfast Agreement.
They said they were “very pleased that negotiations led to the signing of the Windsor Framework”.
“We believe this framework prioritises stability and peace for the people of Northern Ireland and is in the best interest of all people in the region.”
Sir Declan Morgan is a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland who served from 2009-2021.
The Northern Ireland Office said last week that he would begin work from early next month to identify other commissioners and to consider how the new commission will carry out its role.
It said he would lead the process to recruit the Commissioner for Investigations. It said that role had been advertised and the broadest possible field of experienced candidates was being sought. It said the appointment would be made on merit and be subject to a fair and open competition.
Under the UK government’s plans, the ICRIR, which would be headed by a board consisting of a number of commissioners, will have collective responsibility for setting the strategic direction.
The body’s duties would include:
· To carry out reviews of deaths that were caused by conduct forming part of the Troubles;
· To carry out reviews of other harmful conduct forming part of the Troubles;
· To produce reports on the findings of each of the reviews of deaths and other harmful conduct;
· To determine whether to grant people immunity from prosecution for serious or connected Troubles-related offences other than Troubles-related sexual offences;
· To refer deaths that were caused by conduct forming part of the Troubles, and other harmful conduct forming part of the Troubles, to prosecutors; and
· To produce a record of deaths that were caused by conduct forming part of the Troubles.