Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past: the Government’s New Proposals (Interim Report) Contents

1Government engagement with legacy issues

Background

1.In a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) published on 18 March 2020, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Rt Hon. Brandon Lewis MP, outlined the Government’s new legislative proposals to tackle the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.1 Following this, the Irish Government published its view on how it would be handling certain named cases.2 The WMS was published two months after the publication of New Decade, New Approach, which contained a commitment by the Government to “publish and introduce legislation in the UK Parliament to implement the Stormont House Agreement” within 100 days.3 A new approach to addressing Northern Ireland’s past was an important unimplemented element of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. The WMS stated that the new framework would contain “significant changes” from the previous Stormont House Agreement draft Bill.4

2.Following the publication of the WMS, the Committee launched its inquiry on 29 April.5 We received a broad range of written submissions on the proposals, including from victims’ groups, academics, police representatives and veterans.6 We took oral evidence in public on a virtual platform from a number of witnesses in five oral evidence sessions held between June and September.7 We are grateful to all those who took the time to contribute to the inquiry bearing in mind the difficulties caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

Lack of information

3.Disappointingly, the Government abandoned convention and chose not to submit written evidence to this inquiry. Likewise, the Committee has not received a formal response to the WMS from the Irish Government. To date, we have not received a formal submission to our inquiry from the UK Government, although we understand that this is forthcoming. We would also welcome formal input from the Irish Government, given the partnership nature of the Stormont House Agreement. Both contributions will be very helpful in helping the Committee come to its final conclusions. We had been due to question the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the Government’s new proposals at an oral evidence session on 16 September, but in the week before this meeting, the Secretary of State wrote to the Chairman to postpone the session. He stated that the Department was “currently at an important stage of policy consideration, including sensitive engagement with key stakeholders” and therefore would be “unable to provide answers with the openness and clarity that the Committee would expect without risking the progress of such a sensitive issue”.8 While Government engagement post-WMS is welcome, we would have expected this to have been undertaken during the summer. As some of the content of the WMS represents a radical policy departure, meaningful consultation with key stakeholders would have been welcome before publication of the WMS. Consultation is vital given the importance and sensitivity of this subject.

4.While acknowledging the challenges caused by the covid-19 pandemic in terms of departmental resource and public engagement, we would have expected further detail to be made available on the Government’s plans by this point, seven months after the WMS and more than nine months since the commitment in New Decade, New Approach to implement the Stormont House Agreement within 100 days. The two-page WMS released in March remains the only source of policy detail and raises many questions, still unanswered, regarding the role and function of the proposed new legacy body. The lack of information provided by the Government made it difficult to scrutinise the proposals properly. In hindsight, the Government may have been unwise to make a commitment to a 100-day deadline in New Decade, New Approach, which it was subsequently unable to fulfil.

5.We are disappointed that the UK Government has decided not to submit, to date, written evidence to our inquiry, but we look forward to receiving it, just as we would look forward to formal submissions from the Irish Government. In addition, the planned oral evidence session with the Secretary of State was postponed at the request of the Government. This Report is necessarily an Interim Report, in which we set out our recommendations and conclusions with a view to informing the future policy. We hope that the Government will use its response to this Interim Report to address the outstanding questions in this policy area and keep in mind the principles of the Stormont House Agreement and New Decade, New Approach.

6.Too many key questions remain regarding how the proposed new institution would operate and function. It is deeply worrying that since 18 March, when the Government announced its new legacy proposals, it has been unable to provide any further policy detail. While covid-19 has presented a challenge across government, policy development has continued across Whitehall, and the Northern Ireland Office has digital platforms to facilitate its work. The information lacuna is especially regrettable given the sensitivity of the issues and the period since many of the events occurred. Delay and uncertainty perpetuate an unacceptable situation that has already gone on too long.


1 Addressing Northern Ireland Legacy Issues, Written statement by Brandon Lewis MP, 18 March 2020, HCWS168

3 Paragraph 16, Annex A, New Decade New Approach agreement

5 For the inquiry’s Terms of Reference, see: Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s past: The UK Government’s New Proposals, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

6 Published written evidence submissions to the inquiry can be read here.

7 The Committee took oral evidence from: the Commission for Victims and Survivors Northern Ireland, WAVE Trauma Centre, South East Fermanagh Foundation, Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association, Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans Original, Police Service of Northern Ireland, Jon Boutcher, Lord Caine, Lord Hain, Baroness Ritchie and Lord Empey.




Published: 26 October 2020