The former police ombudsman for Northern Ireland has said the UK Government is trying to force through a legacy Bill which is “not fit for purpose”.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which had its final committee sitting in the House of Lords last week, would provide immunity for people accused of crimes during the Troubles, as long as they co-operate with a new truth recovery body known as the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).
The Bill would also halt future civil cases and inquests linked to killings during the conflict.
It has been widely criticised by Northern Ireland’s political parties, the Irish Government and victims’ groups.
Having previously paused an amendment she had brought to committee, ex-ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan is to “come back with some form of challenge to the Bill”, which she said is the last viable opportunity to stop the legislation.
“It’s been condemned internationally and nationally, has breached our international legal obligations, has been condemned because it’s not victims-focused.
“Because it’s not going to deliver reconciliation, because it introduces provisions whereby people who have been involved in the conflict can seek immunity for their crimes by telling something – but those provisions will not work in the interests of victims.
“I don’t think the Bill is legally compliant and I don’t think it’s capable of being changed.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has promised a number of “game-changing” amendments will be proposed at the next parliamentary report stage, however Baroness O’Loan rejected this suggestion.
She said there has not been anything “game-changing” nor “significant” so far.
“Since November, they’ve had endless opportunities to bring in amendments which are game-changing, and they haven’t done it,” she said.
Baroness O’Loan said she cannot understand why any proposed “game-changing” amendment was not made during committee stage.
“I hope it will change dramatically, but I think the Bill is not fit for purpose.”
She said for an amendment to be game-changing it would need to give people back the right to bring civil action, the right to prosecute and the right to inquests.
Baroness O’Loan said the Northern Ireland Assembly needs to be consulted on the matter.
“This is a matter which should be decided in consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly and there’s a legal mechanism by which that should happen,” she said.
She called on Labour to “back any attempt to stop” the Bill until then, however she said she has not heard if the party is supporting her.
“My view is that once the Bill is passed, it’s much harder to start dismantling something which is in place,” she warned.
“This Bill will not work. It won’t answer questions. It won’t provide reconciliation, won’t help victims. What it will do is prevent any further actions at all.”
Asked about the appointment of former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan to chair the ICRIR, Baroness O’Loan said this should not have happened before the Bill passed.
She said Sir Declan would find it to be “an enormously difficult job” under the Legacy Bill’s current wording.
“The Secretary of State has retained so much power that his [Sir Declan’s] ability to act in the way he might wish to act will be severely constrained,” she said.
She said she would not have taken the job and that she had spoken to lawyers and former police chiefs who also would not have accepted the role.
“But Declan Morgan has the right to make his own decisions,” she added.
Victims’ rights campaigner Raymond McCord has called on Sir Declan to refuse the appointment, saying the Bill risks victims being retraumatised through a “diabolical, twisted form of reconciliation and justice”.
He added: “The murderer is now put before the victim and above the law.”
He said “appeasement and cover-up” is not helpful to victims and survivors.
Mr McCord, whose son Raymond Jnr was murdered by loyalists in 1997, said Baroness O’Loan “has got it right”.
He added: “The Bill is totally wrong and should be scrapped.
“Where are our politicians at the minute? They need to get together as one voice and stop this.”
He said it would send a message to the Government if Sir Declan “would stand with the victims and refuse the job that destroys the truth and justice system of international law and legal obligations”.