The Troubles: 'Legacy Act denies victims like me closure'

A law that has now shut down some Troubles-era inquests is a setback to reconciliation, a victim's son has said.

The legacy bill ends 38 inquests which had not reached their final stages by 1 May.

It also introduces a new legacy body to take over all Troubles cases spanning the 30-year conflict.

The law has been opposed by all Northern Ireland politicians at Stormont and Westminster.

It was also rejected by Troubles victims' groups, with some relatives holding a protest at the Northern Ireland Office headquarters in Belfast on Wednesday.

However, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris welcomed the implementation of the bill.

He said the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) would deliver "robust and effective mechanisms for addressing the legacy of the past".

'Need closure'

Sean Slane, whose father Gerard, 27, was shot dead by loyalists in 1988, said he had been put through "turmoil" year-after-year.

He said his family had hoped an inquest could help as they "need closure" on what happened.

The ICRIR, headed up by former Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, has the power to run replacement inquests.

It will also investigate any Troubles-related incidents in the UK where people were killed or seriously injured.

But its main task will be to provide new information to relatives and survivors.

The Lady Chief Justice's Office said 14 of the inquests affected by the 1 May deadline had not reached a findings stage, while 24 others had not been assigned a coroner to begin.

Some of the inquests cover multiple killings.

Gerard Slane's murder by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in west Belfast involved an Army agent, Brian Nelson.

A new inquest was ordered in 2011, but it was hit by multiple delays, including over the disclosure of security force documents.

"It was just delaying tactics the whole way through," his son said.

Sean Slane added: "Personally, the only way there is going to be true peace and reconciliation is for the truth to come out across the board."

Rather than go to the ICRIR, he said he would campaign for an inquest, noting Labour had pledged to repeal the law if it won the next general election.

Speaking on Good Morning Ulster on Wednesday, Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn said for many bereaved families the May deadline felt like a door being slammed shut in their face.

He said that Labour would remove immunity from the act "because it's already been struck down by the High Court in Belfast, though the issue is being appealed".

Mr Benn said his party would also restore civil cases and inquests.

Speaking about the ICRIR, he said: "I would not scrap it, I will see how it goes. In the end the test for this is will it work for families.

"In the end if families find that ICRIR works for them - and there are some reforms that we could make to boost confidence in it - then that will put us in a much, much better place than where we are at the moment."

'More grief'

Rev David Clements' father Billy was a reserve police officer who was murdered by the IRA in December 1985.

Of the ICRIR, he said: "I think we have to be to some degree pragmatic and say this is the only game in town at the moment.

"If we can find a way to engage constructively with it and give it a fair wind as best we can, my own personal view is that's the approach we should take."

The ICRIR, established by the act, will take on cases referred to it or brought by bereaved families and survivors, and has police powers to investigate and bring prosecutions, where possible.

Hilary Benn
Hilary Benn said Labour would scrap immunity from the act and restore civil cases and inquests [PA Media]

The act's immunity clause has been disapplied by legal action.

From Wednesday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) will no longer investigate Troubles cases and will "cooperate fully" with ICRIR requests for information.

The ICRIR's commissioner for investigations, Peter Sheridan, said he hoped the new body would be supported over time.

The act has been criticised by Northern Ireland political parties and victims' groups.

The Irish government is also bringing an inter-state case against the UK at the European Court of Human Rights.

"I understand the contested nature of this," said Mr Sheridan.

Chris Heaton-Harris stands behind a range of microphones at a press conference
Chris Heaton-Harris says the ICRIR will deliver results [PA Media]

"At some stage if we are all serious about wanting to help victims and survivors then everybody has to contribute into this, otherwise we are going to leave this for another generation to do."

He explained how the body would work with families: "If it is a case with the possibility of evidence, then it will be a criminal justice investigation.

"If it is one we don't think is going to meet that standard, it could be a culpability, in other words, on the balance of probabilities, Sir Declan Morgan will write a report on who was to blame.

"And in a family focused investigation, answering questions that families have wanted for 40 or 50 years."

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he welcomed the ICRIR becoming operational.

"In establishing the independent commission, we are doing something that has eluded successive governments since 1998," he said.

"If the independent commission is given an opportunity to demonstrate its effectiveness, I am confident that it will deliver results."

'Unfettered access to material'

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher said the PSNI would "do everything required" to support the ICRIR's work.

"I am very aware that for victims' families this will be an unsettling and uncertain time," he said.

"Many have sought answers for years and at times have been frustrated in their efforts to learn the truth.

"Should they choose to approach the commission, the Police Service of Northern Ireland will ensure that Sir Declan Morgan and his team have unfettered access to all of the material in those cases."

Grainne Teggart, of Amnesty International, said the bill's 1 May "guillotine" had "acted as an incentive for the state to frustrate legal proceedings and continue to grossly fail victims".

"The UK government should be utterly ashamed of the suffering they have heaped on victims by this appalling act," she said.