Families will not find out ‘what really went on’ if Troubles amnesty Bill becomes law, says campaigner

Bill will provide immunity for perpetrators accused of Troubles-related offences as long as they co-operate with new truth recovery body

When Alan McBride walks his daughter down the aisle this December, she will be three years older than her mother was when she was killed by a bomb in a Belfast fish shop.

Zoe celebrated her second birthday a month before the Shankill bomb in October 1993, when 29-year-old Sharon McBride, her father and nine others died in the IRA attack.

For McBride, who has worked at the Wave Trauma Centre for more than 20 years providing support to victims and survivors of the Troubles, his family “got their day in court” and “at least some sense of justice”.

He is now campaigning for those bereaved families who, he says, will not find out “what really went on” if a controversial UK government Bill dealing with the legacy of the North’s conflict becomes law.


Debated in the House of Lords on Tuesday following amendments, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will provide immunity for perpetrators accused of Troubles-related offences as long as they co-operate with a new truth recovery body; it would also halt future civil cases and inquests linked to the conflict.

Fiercely opposed by the North’s five main political parties, human rights groups and the Irish Government, it was branded a “total disaster” by the former Church of Ireland Primate Robin Eames in the Lords, who said he had “never, never, come across such widespread opposition to a proposal such as this, as is the case today”.

The independent cross-bencher added: “There are so many people in Northern Ireland who are going to be denied justice. Denied the opportunity to be heard.”

Alan McBride says he believes the proposed legislation is “opening up a sore”.

“If you’re genuinely wanting to build peace and reconciliation, you have to have some attempt to deal with the past. This is not it,” he told The Irish Times.

How the UK government can call this victim-centred is beyond me

—  Alan McBride

“This is really an affront to everyone that’s fought in the way that we have for years.

“That’s not to say that victims are naive in thinking there’s going to be court cases and people are going to jail – we know that’s not going to happen.

“But you do need to have some sort of investigation to get to the truth.

“This notion that perpetrators are just going to come and ‘fess up and tell you everything they know without any sense of being compelled to do so or without any kind of sanction, it’s just absolute nonsense.

“How the UK government can call this victim-centred is beyond me.”

For the past seven years, retired Bedfordshire chief constable Jon Boutcher has overseen a team investigating historical Troubles-related crimes in Northern Ireland in what is known as Operation Kenova.

The stories of the loved ones of some those attending the Wave Trauma Centre are among the Kenova files.

“There’s 30 files currently with the Public Prosecution Service but it’s not up to Jon whether these things get prosecuted, he’s presented the case,” explains McBride.

“But families are getting answers to the things they were looking for. Sometimes the answers are relatively low-key like, ‘What was the last thing my loved one said before they were shot’ or ‘What was he wearing’.

“These little things mean a hell of a lot to relatives but probably don’t add up to an awful lot in terms of bringing prosecution.”

Commenting on the proposed legislation last week, Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said the UK government is “determined to deliver better outcomes for those most affected by the Troubles” and “welcomes continued engagement with all stakeholders, including the Irish Government, as the legislation passes through parliament”.

I suspect there’ll never be an investigation into the Shankill and what really went on. But at least we got some sense of justice

—  Alan McBride

But Sinn Féin MP John Finucane, whose father Pat was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989, accused the UK government of ignoring victims and said the proposed legislation “runs contrary to international law and human rights obligations”.

Speaking at a protest in Belfast on Tuesday for those who lost relatives during the Troubles, he added: “That’s not just my view, it is the view of many human rights and legal practitioners, academics, human rights organisations and the Irish Government.”

As the 30th anniversary of the Shankill bombing approaches, Mr McBride said the “life milestones” of weddings and births (his first grandchild was born last year) are all the more bittersweet.

“It is really difficult. My daughter Zoe is now 31. She’s two years older than Sharon was when she was killed. Zoe is getting married this year, her mother won’t be there to see me walking her down the aisle.

“Those things are hurtful. Sharon was so cruelly taken from us.

“We were fortunate, we got our day in court. One of the bombers served a relatively short time in jail. But we didn’t get the driver, we didn’t get the people who carried out the reconnaissance.

“People think the only ones involved in the Shankill bomb were Sean Kelly [released early under The Belfast Agreement] and Thomas Begley [who died planting the bomb]. Of course the truth is, there were so many more involved in that bomb than that.

“I suspect there’ll never be an investigation into the Shankill and what really went on. But at least we got some sense of justice.

“How awful must it be for those families who don’t?

“For them to be told by the UK government that the best they can come up with is just closing down all these inquiries and investigations is wrong.

“That’s not saying there will ever be a way that’s perfect. There won’t. But this is about as least perfect as you can possibly get.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times