Amendments to UK’s Northern Ireland Conflict Bill Compound Injustice

By Brian Dooley

The terrible legislation on the Northern Ireland conflict designed by the British government to protect former security personnel from facing possible prosecution just got worse.

The bill proposes immunity for former British soldiers, members of the police force in Northern Ireland, and others for crimes committed during the 1969-1998 conflict. It also proposes ending all future court cases, inquests and official inquiries into any conflict-related crimes.

Now, under one of several new amendments proposed by the British government, inquests which have already begun and are currently hearing evidence will be scrapped unless they are completed by May 1, 2024.

Such limits would halt the pursuit justice for victims of state-sponsored violence.

Take, for example, the killings at Springhill/Westrock in Belfast in July 1972, when British soldiers killed five people, including three children and a priest.  After decades of campaigning, the families of those killed were finally granted a coroner’s inquest, which began hearing evidence in February 2023.

The Springhill/Westrock families saw the inquest as a breakthrough in which they could finally get the truth about who killed their loved ones, and why. Coroners can’t prosecute anyone, but witnesses can be summoned and cross examined. The coroner publishes a public report of findings, and determines whether killings were or were not justified.

Such inquests can take a very long time, but under the new amendment, this Springhill/Westrock inquest, and all others currently under way, will be scrapped unless completed by May 1, 2024.

Another coroner’s inquest, into the 1971 killings of ten civilians in Ballymurphy, Belfast, took two and a half years before it reported its findings. It found that the ten people killed were innocent, and nine had been shot by British soldiers (the coroner could not definitively say who shot the tenth).

To shut these investigations down would be an abdication of the UK’s responsibility to find the truth.

An analysis of the new amendments by Belfast-based human rights organization the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) underscores that the new provisions “will shut down existing legacy mechanisms at a time when such mechanisms are increasingly delivering for [bereaved] families.”

Derry-based NGO the Pat Finucane Centre said the new amendments “represent a new all-time low as victims & families are to be denied justice from May 2024,” and condemned this “draconian denial of justice.”

Few outside the British government, and some British veterans groups (protected by this legislation), think this bill is a good idea.  In a rare show of unity, all the political parties in Northern Ireland condemn the bill, as do victims and survivors of the conflict from across communities. In January 2023, a bipartisan group of 27 Members of the United States Congress publicly criticized the bill.

This week, Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said that by pushing the bill, the UK government “ignores the many warnings that this legislation would violate the UKs international obligations and put victims’ rights at risk.”

Micheál Martin, Irish Foreign Minister and Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) urged the British government to stop the bill, saying “it is simply cruel, leaving questions and suspicions hanging and preventing lasting reconciliation.” The Irish government is considering taking legal action against the UK if the bill passes.

Human Rights First joins the many voices condemning this unnecessary and unjust legislation. We have a long history of working for accountability in Northern Ireland stretching back to the 1990s. This month Mike Breen, President and CEO of Human Rights first, joined the leaders of other NGOs to urge the withdrawal of the bill.

I am representing Human Rights First on a panel of international experts examining the issue of impunity during the conflict. Whether this shameful bill becomes law or not, we will continue to stand with the families and survivors in their struggles for justice.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on June 23, 2023


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