Controversial Troubles legacy and reconciliation legislation has cleared its first Commons hurdle without support from any of Northern Ireland’s MPs.
The House of Commons voted 285 to 208, majority 77, to give the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill a second reading, which means the principle of the legislation has been approved.
The division list showed only Tory MPs voted in favour, with DUP, SDLP and Alliance’s Stephen Farry voting against.
The Bill is intended to establish an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which would review deaths and other harmful conduct within the Troubles – defined as the period from January 1 1966 to April 10 1998.
It will offer immunity to people who are deemed to have co-operated with the information retrieval body, but criminal prosecutions could still take place.
More than 3,500 people were killed during the Troubles, including over 1,000 members of the security forces, and the new body would seek to help individuals and family members receive more information.
Conservative MPs hope the measures will stop “vexatious” action against British military personnel who served in Northern Ireland.
DUP MP Gavin Robinson told the Commons: “I know there are members in this chamber that think ‘for goodness sake Northern Ireland legacy, can’t they just agree?’
“Well, we all do agree in Northern Ireland that this Bill is wrong, that this Bill will not command support, that this Bill drives a coach and horses through the pursuit of justice. And I take no pride in that.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “The pretence from this Government that this is about victims or reconciliation is frankly an out-and-out lie.”
Mr Farry said: “It is unworkable and incompatible with the principles of justice, the rule of law, reconciliation, and is not compatible either with international human rights standards.”
Former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith, who did not vote, urged the Government to “pause” its plans to stop future inquests and other investigations.
He said: “Today many victims feel that they have been hit by a double whammy with this Bill. Their route to justice cut off, and at the same time their route to the truth restricted.”
Opening the debate, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he accepts the UK Government’s proposals will remain “challenging for some” and they are about trying to find a way to obtain information and provide accountability “more quickly and more comprehensively than the current system”.
He said the law will be supported by a “legal requirement for full disclosure from UK Government departments, security services and arms-length bodies” to ensure it can gather the evidence it needs.
Mr Lewis told the Commons: “We, as a Government, do accept on that point that as part of this process there will be information released into the public domain that may well be uncomfortable for everybody.
“It’s important that we as a Government acknowledge our shortcomings, as we have done previously, during that immensely challenging period.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the US House of Representatives’ powerful Ways and Means Committee Richard Neal has said that legacy issues should not get in the way of Troubles victims getting the information they seek about their loved ones.
Speaking to Irish senators, Mr Neal said: “We cannot allow the fallout from Brexit to divert Ireland from the path of peace and progress, and we must not allow the clock to be turned back.”
He said there was “work to do” to protect and reinforce peace in Northern Ireland and to ensure it does not go “awry”.
“The legacy issue, as well, should not be allowed to get in the way of what those families need to know about what really happened.
“That is a very important consideration.
“And so that everybody knows, when they come to Washington, we meet with all the families regardless of their tradition, because there was enough pain inflicted by both sides on the other that those families need closure in their lives.”
These comments received a round of applause from members of Ireland’s upper house, Seanad Eireann.
Mr Neal went on to mention Bloody Sunday, the Birmingham Six, the Finucane family and the cause of victims campaigner Raymond McCord.
“We need to know,” he said.
The programme motion approved by MPs states proceedings in committee shall be completed in two days.
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