I’ve always hated the word the Troubles. It’s strange to think that in any other place, what Northern Ireland experienced would have been called a war – instead, it’s just a conflict, some trouble. However, this undermines so many aspects of history, present life and even outcomes in the future. The UK government have recently announced legislation titled the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. There are multiple concerns about it, especially the concern that it violates Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (the right to life and the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment) and Articles 6 and 13 (right to a fair trial and the right to an effective remedy).
Whilst many are aware, it is important to note what the Troubles actually are. The Troubles refers to the bloody sectarian conflict that spanned over many decades in Northern Ireland between mainly Protestant unionists (loyalists), who desired for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, and mainly Catholic nationalists (republicans) who wanted Northern Ireland to be united with the Republic of Ireland. This conflict resulted in the loss of around 3,600 men, women, and children between 1969 and 1998 from bombings, shootings and more. Eventually, this resulted in the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement on the 10th of April 1998 and the referendum to the public on May 22nd, 1998, which resulted in 71.1% voting in favour. This allowed for devolved self-government in Northern Ireland through ‘power-sharing’, the early release of paramilitary prisoners, demilitarisation and finally, the renewed emphasis on human rights – especially the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). To be honest, that is a brief summary of the Troubles, but it is a difficult matter to summarise given its complexity. Attached below are some useful resources to learn more about the Troubles and the history of Northern Ireland.
"It’s strange to think that in any other place, what Northern Ireland experienced would have been called a war – instead, it’s just a conflict, some trouble."
According to the Government, this bill attempts to address more than a thousand unsolved killings and murders through the establishment of an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) which offers conditional amnesty to those accused of killings and other Troubles-related crimes. Whilst the Bill is currently in the committee stage of the House of Lords, it has not had an easy journey. It is opposed by all parties in Northern Ireland, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin who say that ‘victims’ families will not get the justice they deserve’. Perhaps it is significant to note that for the DUP and Sinn Fein to actually agree on something is monumental; showing how significant the opposition is for this bill for the people of Northern Ireland.
Towards the end of November, the government told peers that it will bring forward amendments including a “more robust process” around immunity from prosecution according to Lord Caine and has also stated that the ICRIR will be able to conduct criminal investigations. Furthermore, “all Troubles-related criminal investigations, criminal prosecutions, inquests, civil claims, and police complaints will be subject to prohibitions or restrictions” as pointed out in the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on the bill. Despite this, there are multiple concerns as previously mentioned by all political parties in Northern Ireland and Labour in the UK, victims’ groups, the Council of Europe, Amnesty and also the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
One of the main principles as mentioned in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is the enshrinement of human rights. The GFA incorporates the ECHR into Northern Irish law meaning that any primary legislation passed by Stormont is subject to the Convention. Therefore, the Good Friday Agreement placed a duty on the British government to uphold ECHR in Northern Irish law and the very being of the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland is dependent on it. The Northern Ireland Troubles Bill as highlighted by many organisations is a ‘widespread breach’ of ‘human rights law’. As Amnesty (2022) points out, over years there has been a ‘piecemeal approach to dealing with the past’, causing many victims to still be waiting for justice. Amnesty argues that the UK Government is betraying those victims by permanently removing any possibility of truth, justice, and accountability.
The parliamentary joint committee on human rights warms that the bill’s approach “risks failing to meet the minimum standards required to ensure effective investigations into troubles-related cases concerning deaths and serious injury”. Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP, lawyer, and chair of the committee expressed her concern over how she believes the bill is not compatible with Article 2 of the ECHR, the right to life and Article 3, the prohibition of torture. The committee argued that “the right to life and the prohibition of torture under the ECHR requires that the state undertake investigations into certain cases concerning deaths and serious harm which are independent, effective, reasonably prompt and expeditious, subject to public scrutiny and involve the next of kin”.
However, this bill does not have just an impact on accessing legal justice in Northern Ireland but also can contribute to the trans-generational trauma in Northern Ireland. According to a Queen’s University study on the Trans-Generational Impact of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, whilst young people “may not have experienced conflict directly, they face a real-life threat of inheriting the psychological vulnerability of their parents”. Within Northern Ireland, there is a massive culture of silence surrounding the trauma related to the conflict that acts as an active transmitter of trauma. This can clearly be shown in studies describing that Northern Ireland has the highest level of PTSD in Europe. At least two-thirds of the NI adult population has experienced a traumatic event in their life and as many as 77% of 15-16 year olds are experiencing community violence which has impacted their mental well-being resulting in depression and increased substance abuse. In 2018, it was found that more people have taken their own lives in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement than were killed in political violence during the Troubles. In 2018, it was estimated that about 4,500 suicides were registered since the peace deal was signed (compared to 3,600 people who died in the Troubles). Similarly, as Siobhan O’Neill, the Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland points out, there were 143 registered suicides in 1996 compared to 318 in 2015. There is no denying that Northern Ireland is an unstable and fragile place.
With its history of bloodshed, its present where there is no form of current government, an ongoing mental health crisis and the threat to the future of justice with this Troubles Bill. It does make us question; will people receive justice if this bill is passed?
Resources on the Troubles and Northern Ireland