The council’s Committee of Ministers, which enforces judgements at the European Court of Human Rights, had yesterday criticised UK government laws aimed at dealing with the legacy of past violence, days after those proposals were enacted as the Legacy Act.
In the council’s analysis, it recorded the MHG view “that the approach proposed in the act has the potential to reduce community tensions and address the realisable needs of victims’ families by the provision of new information”.
The Committee of Ministers issued a decision on the act in relation to Northern Ireland cases known as the McKerr Group (that include the Pat Finucane case). It was Strasbourg’s first opportunity to assess the new legislation, which it has opposed. The quarterly meeting was attended by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) minister Lord Caine.
Jeff Dudgeon, convenor of the MHG, said that the committee added their criticism “of the Committee of Ministers and the Council of Europe for the focus on the responsibility of the state for killings in Northern Ireland rather than on republican and loyalist paramilitaries (who carried out 90% of killings), and stressed that the committee should consider both the context of the Troubles, when hundreds of deaths and bombings were taking place every year, as well as the passage of time and the costs involved in continuing with the current procedures”.
While the council findings were yesterday widely reported in Northern Ireland as yet another condemnation of Britain’s approach to legacy in Northern Ireland, Mr Dudgeon said that the committee had “pulled back from its usual negative position on the UK government’s legislation. Instead, it has given London a stay of execution for nine months until June 2024.
"Despite demands from the Irish government, it has not taken the extreme option of calling for the repeal of the Legacy Act. It has however demanded an amendment to remove the conditional immunity aspect, as it believed it “risked breaching obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention.”
Mr Dudgeon added: “The committee simply agreed to send a letter to the UK authorities to raise its overall concerns. The British government will be pleased with this temporary reprieve but Dublin might be sufficiently disappointed to go ahead at Strasbourg with its threatened inter-state case against London.”
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act received royal assent on Monday despite opposition from most political parties, victims' organisations in Northern Ireland and the Irish government – albeit opposition that is often motivated by very diverging aims and concerns.
The most controversial aspects of the new act include a limited form of immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related offences to those who co-operate with the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR). It will also halt future civil cases and inquests.
The ICRIR, which will assume responsibility for reviewing hundreds of unresolved Troubles deaths, will be headed by former Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan with ex RUC officer Peter Sheridan as its commissioner for investigations.
In the newly published decision, the Council of Europe said issues relating to independence, disclosure and the initiation of reviews by the ICRIR "remain uncertain".
It also urged authorities to consider taking "additional practical measures" to ensure that as many legacy inquests as possible could conclude before a cut-off date of May 1 2024. But groups such as MHG have pointed out that such inquests are overwhelmingly into killings in which there are allegations against the security forces.
The council is to write to the UK government outlining its concerns.
This week, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris described the granting of royal assent for the act as a "significant milestone". He said: "The legislation contains finely balanced political and moral choices.”