Back in March 2020, as the world was about to be plunged into a global heath crisis and the UK into lockdown, Brandon Lewis made a statement to the Commons on the legacy of Northern Ireland’s conflict.
It was the first indication that the Government intended to move away from the previous Stormont House legacy agreement.
The secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, announced plans to implement an information-recovery process that would “end the cycle of reinvestigations for the families of victims and veterans alike”.
Boris Johnson was under increasing pressure from a number of MPs — the highest profile of which was Johnny Mercer — to put an end to the prosecution of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
The timing of Mr Lewis’ statement meant it did not receive the scrutiny it may have in a more normal news cycle.
Fast forward to July 2021 and the Government published a Command Paper entitled Addressing The Legacy Of Northern Ireland’s Past.
As expected, it outlined how the Government intended to end all future criminal investigations.
The proposals included a statute of limitations on future prosecutions of military veterans and ex-paramilitaries for Troubles incidents predating April 1998.
However, the proposed legislation went further in that it would not just end criminal prosecutions, but all Troubles inquests and civil cases.
Instead, victims would be offered an opportunity to participate in an information-recovery process.
The Command Paper received an almost universal backlash. It united victims of loyalist, republican and state killings in opposition to a closing of every possible avenue of justice.
Politicians from all parties also condemned the government’s plans.
The legislation was to begin passing through Parliament last Autumn; instead, it was delayed while the Government took legal advice on how to end all Troubles prosecutions within the parameters of international law.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will, as expected, contain an information-recovery process.
It includes the setting up of a new body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which, the Government say, “will conduct investigations, consistent with our international obligations”.
The ICRIR will have the power to grant immunity from prosecution based on an individual’s cooperation with the body’s inquiries. Those who do not cooperate will remain liable to prosecution.
This closer aligns the Government’s plans to similar models of truth recovery that have been implemented in other post-conflict zones, including the South African model.
Any inquests currently in train will continue. They include those that formed part of the Lord Chief Justice’s plan for dealing with legacy inquests.
However, any future applications for a fresh inquest will not go ahead.
The legislation states that inquests that have reached “the stage of substantive hearing by the date 12 months after the date of introduction or the date by which the ICRIR is operational will be allowed to continue”.
Civil claims that already existed on or before the day of the bill’s introduction will also continue, but all new cases will be barred from this date.
It will also include an official Official History project conducted by historians, underpinned by what the Government say is “unprecedented access to the UK documentary record”.
This is the only element of the bill that also formed part of the Stormont House Agreement.
Brandon Lewis said: “Immunity will be provided to individuals who cooperate, which provides the best route to give victims and their families answers they have sought for years, as well as giving our veterans the certainty they deserve.”
“Following an extensive period of engagement, the Government has amended previous proposals set out in a Command Paper last year to ensure they better meet the needs of those most impacted by the Troubles.”
It seems clear that since last year the Government has sought much wider legal advice and the new legislation attempts to close off any potential legal challenges from the families of victims.
The plans now align themselves with other similar post-conflict arrangements around the world.
While victims of state violence have relied on the support of the powerful Irish American lobby, they are unlikely to find an official US government policy of intervention given the plans are similar to what was negotiated in Afghanistan, where a peace agreement was reached between the US and the Taliban in February 2020 and where it was accepted that an amnesty was a prerequisite to those peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had an amnesty committee that considered applications and granted immunity based on cooperation. This was seen as compliant with international law.
The legacy bill introduced unilaterally and without any input at Assembly level will anger victims and campaigning groups who represent them, but it seems highly unlikely that they can now stop the plans either legally or politically.
And while it may be worded differently to the 2021 Command Paper, the end result will be the same: an end to all criminal prosecutions.