Controversial Northern Ireland legacy Bill to become law after final Westminster vote

MPs in the Commons voted by 288 to 205 to reject amendments introduced in the House of Lords

The UK government’s controversial legacy legislation to “draw a line” under the North’s Troubles is set to become law after it passed a final vote in Westminster on Wednesday.

MPs in the Commons voted by 288 to 205 to reject amendments introduced in the House of Lords on Tuesday which would have altered the conditions required for a perpetrator to receive immunity for prosecution and included consent from victims’ families.

The Bill will now return to the Lords next week, but parliamentary convention means it is unlikely to be opposed, and will instead proceed to receive royal assent and become law.

Michael O’Hare, whose 12-year-old sister Majella was shot dead by a British soldier in Co Armagh in 1976, said the UK government had “abandoned victims in favour of protecting those who took the lives of our loved ones.


“There are no words to express how deep that betrayal cuts,” he said. “It is not right for the [UK] Government to decide who gets justice for serious crimes such as murder and who doesn’t.”

Defending the legislation in the Commons, the Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he hoped “lots of information” would be recovered in “quick time” for families.

Acknowledging there were “no guarantees this will bring forward information at all”, he said the UK government had “come to the conclusion that this is the right way forward because we hope we can in good time at least get some information recovered for those families that ask for it.”

The new law is expected to face significant challenge in the courts from victims’ families and human rights groups in Northern Ireland.

The Shadow Northern Secretary, Hilary Benn, reiterated his party’s commitment to repeal the legislation if in government, saying he thought the Bill would “not achieve the purpose which ministers claim for it” and for this reason the Labour Party was “committed, as the opposition, if we get the opportunity, to repeal it.”

Following the vote on Wednesday relatives of those killed during the Troubles and groups representing victims and survivors repeated calls to the Irish Government to take an inter-state case against the UK government.

The Irish Government is taking legal advice about the possibility of taking the UK government to the European Court of Human Rights over its concerns the new law is in breach of international human rights law.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Wednesday that the Attorney General Rossa Fanning is preparing legal advice on taking a case before the court.

He said Mr Fanning was determining if the legislation was, or was not, compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights of which the United Kingdom is a signatory.

“I will make a decision on whether or not we pursue a case in the coming weeks. And that’s something obviously that the Tánaiste [Micheál Martin] and I will have to sit down and talk about.”

Speaking after a Cabinet meeting, Mr Varadkar told reporters: “The Irish Government’s position has been very clear on this all along. We think this is a mistake. This is the wrong way to go about dealing with legacy issues in Northern Ireland.”

Tanaiste Micheál Martin said that he anticipated legal advice outlining the options within the next fortnight.

“We’ve asked the British government would they pause the legislation. We still ask them to pause the legislation because we do not believe a unilateral decision like this, which the Irish government and which all the other parties in Northern Ireland do not agree with, is a wise move.”

Gráinne Teggart of Amnesty International said the Bill’s passage was a “dark day for justice” and the Irish Government must “follow through with their opposition to this Bill and make a firm and unequivocal commitment to take an interstate case,” adding it would “now be over to the courts to right this historic wrong”.

Fine Gael Senator Emer Currie said an inter-state challenge was “our best hope” to stop the legislation “before irreparable harm is done to victims’ rights, victims’ voices, to truth and justice for all”.

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said there was now a “moral obligation on the Irish Government to step up and step in with legal action”.

In Washington politicians strongly criticised the introduction of the legacy legislation. Democratic congressman Brendan Boyle described the move as “shameful” and that it represented a broken promise by the British government.

Democrat Bill Keating, the ranking member of the Europe Subcommittee in the United States House of Representatives, said the legislation “directly threatens the stable peace established by the Good Friday agreement and undermines processes agreed upon in the Stormont House Agreement”.

The Ad Hoc Committee to Protect the Good Friday Agreement – a body in the US made up of about 80 academics, experts and former diplomats – said “nothing good” could come from the Northern Ireland legacy legislation becoming law.

“For two years, we have been cautioning the UK government against proceeding with the legacy Bill despite near-universal opposition and condemnation about the approach. The decision to proceed is deeply regretted.”

“While more valuable time for justice is lost to more legal wrangling, we support the victims of violence in NI in their quest for a workable approach to reconciliation and justice.”

The largest Irish-American organisation, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, condemned the development and said it would ask politicians in US to reexamine the “special relationship” with the UK “in light of Britain breaking with the standards of justice that Americans and all modern societies hold dear”.

“With the passage today of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, the government of prime minister Sunak has decided to add their own sad chapter in the history of Britain’s callous disregard for the rights of the Irish people. The Bill trades equal access to the courts and justice that are the mark of all democratic societies for an unrealistic, forlorn hope that perpetrators of killings and torture will, after decades of literally getting away with murder, will now have a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. "

“In unilaterally adopting this Bill, the United Kingdom has violated the Good Friday, Stormont House, and Fresh Start agreements, which now join the dubious company of the Treaty of Limerick and the Third Home Rule Bill.”

In the wake of the vote, victims and survivors condemned the UK government’s move and vowed they would not give up their fight for truth and justice.

Relatives for Justice called on people to take part in a campaign on Wednesday evening to “light a candle in our windows, at our loved ones’ graves, in places special to us, to say #NeverGivingUp.

“Send a message to the British government, victims and survivors rights to truth, justice and accountability will not be dismissed, torn up and discounted and our loved ones’ memory will not be diminished.”

The Pat Finucane Centre said it anticipated “a number of legal challenges in the domestic courts and in Europe” and it would continue to support families “through the next difficult stage in their journey”.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will replace current methods of criminal and civil investigations and inquests with inquiries carried out by a new investigative body, which has the power to offer conditional amnesties for perpetrators.

It is opposed by the North’s five main political parties, victims and human rights groups, the Irish Government, other parties in Ireland and in Britain, and internationally, but supported by veterans’ groups.

During an often heated debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Northern parties expressed their opposition to the legislation, which the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said left him “deeply ashamed”, was an “affront to human rights” and was not “immunity, it is impunity.”

The DUP MP Jim Shannon said the “light” of “families’ right of justice was being extinguished”, while the Alliance MP Stephen Farry said the Bill was “driven by the politics of the Conservative Party, not the needs of Northern Ireland.”

Following the vote the director of the South-East Fermanagh Foundation, Kenny Donaldson, said it was “regrettable” the UK government was “not willing to accept the very reasonable amendment” from the House of Lords “which would’ve ensured that victims/survivors could feel somewhat empowered.”

He said if the British Labour Party was in government and repealed the legislation, it had “no unilateral right to impose an alternative structure” and there would be a need for “fresh and intense discussions with victims/survivors.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent