Amnesty clause for soldiers breaches human rights law, Belfast court rules

<span>Martina Dillon, whose husband was killed in a loyalist attack in 1997, outside the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters</span>
Martina Dillon, whose husband was killed in a loyalist attack in 1997, outside the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast on Wednesday.Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Legislation that gives conditional amnesties to soldiers and paramilitaries for Troubles-era crimes in Northern Ireland breaches human rights legislation, a high court in Belfast has ruled.

There was no evidence the immunity provision in the government’s Legacy Act would help reconciliation in Northern Ireland, the court said on Wednesday, delivering a fresh blow to the law that has angered victims’ groups and caused friction between London and Dublin.

Mr Justice Adrian Colton said two sections of the act, which received royal assent last September, breached the European convention on human rights. “There is no evidence that the granting of immunity under the act will in any way contribute to reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary.”

The convention’s protection of the right to life and the right to pursue civil claims was cited in the judgment.

The ruling revived calls from Northern Ireland politicians and advocacy groups to scrap or suspend the legislation but the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, said the government remained committed to its implementation.

“It is a very complex case, I am told the judgment runs to over 200 pages and I am yet to see it,” he told the House of Commons. “We will consider Mr Justice Colton’s findings very, very carefully, but we do remain committed to implementing the Legacy Act.”

The ruling was the latest challenge to legislation conceived during Boris Johnson’s administration and widely seen as an attempt to shield army veterans from prosecution for alleged crimes during the Troubles.

From May, it halts inquests and future civil actions and offers immunity to former security force members and paramilitaries who cooperate with a new agency, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).

Hundreds of murders remain unsolved, many dating back to the height of bloodshed in the early 1970s. A small number of prosecutions in recent years have failed to secure convictions but some victims’ families wish to retain the hope of prosecution.

Mr Justice Colton gave some relief to the government by ruling that the ICRIR could carry out human rights-compliant investigations. “It has wide powers and wide range of discretion to carry out its reviews.” Should the commission fall short of human rights obligations it will be subject to court scrutiny, he said.

In a statement, the ICRIR said the judgment confirmed it had been properly and lawfully established and said it would proceed with its work. “We will study the court’s judgment in detail and seek to reflect this as we refine our proposals to carry out independent investigations from this summer.”

However, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Hilary Benn, questioned how the commission could proceed when immunity, a pillar of the legislation, had been struck down. Labour has said if elected it would repeal the act.

Campaigners outside the court held placards that read: “Legacy families have a right to an investigation: time for truth and justice.”

The case was brought by a group of victims’ relatives: Brigid Hughes, whose husband, Anthony, was killed by soldiers in 1987; Martina Dillon, whose husband, Seamus, died in a 1997 loyalist attack; Lynda McManus, whose father, James, was wounded in a separate 1997 loyalist attack; and John McEvoy, who was wounded in a loyalist attack in 1992. Amnesty International supported their action.

Last December, the Irish government launched a separate challenge to the legislation with an inter-state case at Strasbourg under the European convention on human rights, prompting a stinging riposte from London and continued friction between Rishi Sunak and the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

Simon Harris, Ireland’s minister for further education, welcomed the ruling. “It does certainly seem positive, and positive from the perspective of the Irish government wanting to work to ensure that all families get justice,” he told the Dail.