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Troubles Legacy Act ruling appealed by government

 Liam McBurney/PA Martina Dillon Liam McBurney/PA

Martina Dillon called for a fresh inquest into the killing of her husband in 1997

The government has begun its appeal against a ruling which found that parts of its controversial Troubles Legacy Act were unlawful.

The most contentious aspect of the act was an offer of conditional immunity to suspects in exchange for information about Troubles-era crimes.

In February, the High Court in Belfast ruled such an amnesty would be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Families bereaved in the Troubles, who had welcomed February’s ruling, are still seeking to have other parts of the Legacy Act struck out.

Relatives gathered outside the Court of Appeal on Tuesday, where they called on the Labour Party to repeal the act if it forms the next government.

Among them was campaigner Martina Dillion, whose husband was shot dead in a paramilitary attack in 1997.

She called for access to fresh inquests – which was removed under the terms of the Legacy Act – to be reinstated.

“Every victim that’s entitled to an inquest, they should be getting it, it shouldn’t have been taken away,” she told reporters.

“The government brought on this law to suit themselves, not the people that it involves.”

On a visit to Belfast last year, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he would repeal the Legacy Act if he became prime minister.

Ms Dillion said she had “confidence” that a future Labour government would honour that pledge.

“I have no other choice, I have to trust them,” she said.

‘Right this historic wrong’

 Liam McBurney/PA Gráinne Teggart accompanied the families to court on Tuesday Liam McBurney/PA

Gráinne Teggart accompanied the families to court on Tuesday

Mrs Dillion’s call was echoed by Amnesty International’s deputy director in Northern Ireland, Gráinne Teggart.

“The next UK government has the opportunity to right this historic wrong,” she said.

“They must immediately, as an urgent legislative priority, repeal the Troubles Act and put in place victim-centred processes that prioritise victims and not perpetrators.”

Ms Teggart explained that Tuesday’s hearing was still significant as the families are continuing to challenge other aspects of the legislation.

She said this included the “human rights compliance” of the body which was set up by the act to run new investigations into Troubles killings and serious injuries.

The Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) is led by former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan.

The ICRIR took over all Troubles-era cases from 1 May 2024, including those on the desk of the Police Services of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Ms Teggart said Amnesty still had “significant concerns” about the the ICRIR.

“We need Article 2 compliant investigations so that victims can finally get truth and justice for their loved ones,” she said.

 Liam McBurney/PA Campaigners who are challenging the Legacy Act demonstrated outside the court Liam McBurney/PA

Campaigners who are challenging the Legacy Act demonstrated outside the court

Opening the appeal on Tuesday, government barrister Tony McGleenan summarised a number of previous unsuccessful attempts to deal with the legacy of the Troubles since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

The government’s appeal is seeking to overturn the significant defeat it suffered at the High Court in February.

At that time Mr Justice Colton struck out a central element of the Legacy Act, which would have offered perpetrators of Troubles’ offence conditional immunity.

He ruled it was incompatible with the Windsor Framework and the European Convention of Human Rights.

On the same grounds, he also disapplied the section of the act which banned new civil cases.

A cross-appeal is also being mounted by relatives of victims over another part of the ruling.

February’s ruing found the ICRIR had sufficient independence and powers to investigate Troubles-related cases.

The Labour Party has said it would not immediately scrap the ICRIR, as it wanted to see if it could command the confidence of victims’ families.

What is the Legacy Act?

A train badly damaged by a bomb in Marino, County Down, Northern Ireland on 15 October 1973

More than 3,500 people died during the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Troubles was a 30-year conflict that cost more than 3,500 lives and left thousands more seriously injured.

Last year’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act was the government’s controversial attempt to “draw a line” under that conflict.

It was first proposed by the then prime minister Boris Johnson in 2021 as a solution to ending what he called “vexatious prosecutions” of former soldiers.

The act become law in 2023 and under its initial terms:

  • suspects were in line to be offered immunity from prosecution if they cooperated with new investigations into Troubles-era crimes
  • all Trouble-related inquests which had not reached the stage of findings were shut down on 1 May 2024
  • new civil cases relating to Troubles-era events could not be lodged in court after the May deadline
  • the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) was formed to examine Troubles deaths and serious injuries

The act’s most contentious element – the offer of conditional immunity to suspects – was disapplied by the High Court in February, as was the bar on new civil cases.

 Liam McBurney/PA Campaigners displayed photos of loved ones killed in the Troubles outside court Liam McBurney/PA

Campaigners displayed photos of loved ones killed in the Troubles outside court

There has been widespread opposition to the Legacy Act.

Several victims’ groups; all of Northern Ireland’s political parties, the Labour Party and the Irish government criticised it from the start.

They argued that it denies justice to the bereaved and the injured.

Last December, the Irish government launched a legal challenge over the act in the European Court of Human Rights.

However the UK government has argued that the act is human rights compliant.

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