Controversial legislation is ‘the best way to secure truth’, says Secretary of State, but NI’s main victims’ organisations strongly reject his suggestion that they support it
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has indicated that some Troubles victims’ groups privately support his government’s controversial legacy bill while publicly opposing it.
However, Northern Ireland’s three main victims’ groups have strenuously challenged his suggestion and repeated their universal antipathy to the legislation which includes an effective amnesty for perpetrators.
The largest, cross-community victims’ group, WAVE, accused the Secretary of State of attempting a “divide and conquer approach” with victims which “will not work”.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the Secretary of State acknowledged the legacy issue was “sensitive, complicated and quite painful” for many people.
But he said the current system was failing victims, and their best and quickest way to secure the truth was through the new bill.
When asked if it was anti-democratic to plough ahead with legacy legislation opposed by every political party and victims’ group, Mr Lewis said there were many different views about the way forward among victims, and the Government had engaged in lengthy consultation.
Defending the bill, he said: “I think it’s a very sensible response to what people said, and this is what people said in private.”
When the Belfast Telegraph repeated that not one political party or victims’ group across the spectrum supported the legislation, he said: “Well I’m not sure.
“We have a huge number of people who we’ve engaged with over the last six or nine months and I think actually what we proposed (this week) does cover off the main issues that people raised.”
But Northern Ireland’s main victims’ groups all strongly rejected any suggestion they had privately indicated support for the bill.
WAVE chief executive Sandra Peake said: “We have been crystal clear in our meetings with the Secretary of State and with officials. We are totally against this bill which is perpetrator-friendly.
“There is no disparity in our public and private positions. What we have said to him is the same as what we have said in press releases, interviews, and on social media.”
Ms Peake added: “This seems to be the Secretary of State’s standard approach — it’s one of divide and conquer.
“He has previously suggested to us that the political parties’ views on legacy are not the same in private as they are in public. We have checked that out with the parties and it has not been the case.” Mike Ritchie of Relatives for Justice said: “The Secretary of State didn’t show the courtesy of meeting with us to consult about this bill.
“We’ve had two virtual meetings with officials. The first was very frank. We were treated with contempt and it ended poorly. At the second, we were adamant we were not accepting this legislation.
“It breaches article two of the European Convention on Human Rights and undermines the rule of law. Victims groups are unanimous in their opposition to this bill. What we say in private is precisely what we say in public.”
Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United said: “There is absolutely no difference between what we say in public and in private on the Government’s bill.
“We don’t like it. We don’t support the direction of travel at all. This is an amnesty by stealth.”
If the Government’s bill is passed by Parliament, inquests into the murders of Troubles victims due to open next year will not now go ahead.
When asked for his response to their families — who have waited decades for the inquests and are angry at the Government’s proposals — Mr Lewis said he understood it was “a hugely sensitive issue”.
But he insisted relatives would now “get access to information in a far more efficient and quicker way” through the new “investigatory body” which would “be able to get to the bottom line and take those cases forward”. Victims and their lawyers have repeatedly complained that the State dragging its feet in terms of disclosure is what prolongs civil cases before the courts.
Asked why they should now trust the Government, the Secretary of State said: “I absolutely accept there is scepticism from people around the Government sharing information in the way that we’re saying that we will.
“One of the things I hope we’ll be able to show people through .. . the legislation and in setting up this investigatory body is that it is going to have access to information beyond what’s been there before, it is going to have the power to do proper investigations.”
Mr Lewis said there had been “a lot of scepticism originally” around Operation Kenova, the inquiry into IRA informer Stakeknife headed by former Bedfordshire chief constable Jon Boutcher.
The Secretary of State said it had “proven itself to be a very, very successful operation” which had “worked very well with families of victims” who spoke positively about it. He believed the new body proposed in the bill would be able to do the same.
When asked how it could be independent, given that commissioners were government-appointed, he insisted it would be impartial being judge-led and with judicial oversight.
Turning to Brexit, Mr Lewis insisted the Government had acted responsibly this week. As Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced plans to scrap parts of the protocol, loyalist Jamie Bryson declared “the unionist veto is back”.
Asked if Mr Bryson was right, the Secretary of State replied: “No, there’s no veto for anybody.
“It’s a matter (of) the UK Government resolving an issue that is detrimentally affecting Northern Ireland and I have to say the UK as well because we’ve got over 200 businesses in Great Britain now not supplying Northern Ireland.” He said “every single party” here wanted to change the protocol. It had “no support” among either unionist political or civic leaders. “This is a protocol that’s not working for anybody in Northern Ireland,” he added.
“All the party leaders want it changed to one degree or another. What’s shifted in the last 10 days is the EU have actually openly now said they’re not going to show flexibility. So there is that point where we have to make difficult decisions about what we do.”
Media reports last weekend said the UVF was threatening a return to violence if the Prime Minister broke his word again and didn’t scrap the protocol.
But Mr Lewis did not believe Northern Ireland faced a long, hot summer with loyalist protests and rioting: “People have got frustrations about certain things. There are proper legal routes through which to demonstrate that. I’m optimistic we’ll have a good and peaceful summer again this year.”