Legacy Bill must be amended to gain support for victims, MPs said

Legacy Bill must be amended to gain support for victims, MPs said

A former police chief charged with investigating the Troubles crimes expressed hope that the controversial legacy legislation could be amended to gain support from the victims’ families.

Jon Boutcher, who leads an independent cold-case initiative called Operation Kenova, which is investigating a series of murders from the conflict, told lawmakers the government was open to talking about possible changes.

The former Bedfordshire Police Chief has received widespread support from the casualty industry in Northern Ireland for the approach he and his team have taken in examining historic murders.

Giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Boutcher said victims were concerned that a review of unsolved crimes planned in the government’s draft legislation would be “shallow” and would not proactively seek new information.

The contentious government legacy bill is currently pending in Parliament.

It proposes a new approach to dealing with conflict, with more focus on truth recovery than criminal justice.

Its most controversial aspects are the promise of immunity from prosecution for perpetrators who agree to provide information to a new body of truth and a move to close conflict-related civil cases and inquiries.

Boutcher said that without changes to the bill, he was worried it would turn into “a store that no one is going to visit.”

Under the plans, unresolved cases would be subject to reviews by a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Retrieval (ICRIR).

Boutcher said the government needed to provide more details on what the revisions would entail.

“Families are concerned, and I understand that concern, that their cases are viewed lightly, that only readily available information is considered,” he said.

“There will be no active pursuit of lines of investigation and robust recovery of material that is held with intelligence agencies previously that was held within those agencies and not shared even through post-conflict investigations and Troubles.

“This needs to be set out in simple, straightforward language so that these families know that they are going to receive a review or investigation, call it what you will, that will ensure that every possible line of investigation has been explored so that they understand what happened. to your loved ones.”

PSNI Deputy Chief of Police Mark Hamilton

PSNI Deputy Chief of Police Mark Hamilton (David Young/PA)

Boutcher said the government could try to claim that an intensive reinvestigation process could take decades. He described it as “poppycock and nonsense”.

“We have tried-and-true processes that gather information very quickly,” he said of Kenova’s work practices.

The longtime official added: “I would like the bill to be acceptable to victim groups and stakeholders. I think the bill needs to have some amendments that the NIO assured me that they would like to talk to me and others.

“I think every effort should be made by everyone to try to work to change this bill to something that can receive broad consensus.”

Boutcher also told lawmakers that the bill was “silent” about inherent delays in the justice system in Northern Ireland, as he said progress on Operation Kenova was being held back by a long wait for prosecutors to review more than 30 evidence files.

“What is not in the bill, and needs to be in it, is clarity around the criminal justice process and the efficiency and effectiveness of the timing of that,” he said.

“I don’t think the director of prosecutors (Stephen Herron) would disagree with me that it’s not acceptable for decisions to take so long.”

PSNI Deputy Police Chief Mark Hamilton told committee members that the police would not have an opinion on policy choices made by the government.

Naomi Long

Justice Minister Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)

However, he highlighted that the bill established a significantly different approach to the current model.

“Our work was founded solely on trying to follow the investigative principles enshrined in the European Convention (on human rights) and also the many and numerous deliberations of many courts over the years,” he told lawmakers.

“As you read this bill, obviously it states from the beginning that it’s about limiting legal proceedings, it’s about limiting criminal investigations, it’s about limiting police complaints. This is a departure from the current regime.

“It talks about parole immunity, which obviously doesn’t exist in the current arrangements as far as police service is concerned.”

Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long also testified to the committee.

She criticized the content of the bill and also the government’s attempt to speed up its journey to the statute book.

“The speed with which the bill is being passed in Parliament risks not only creating bad laws, but further undermining trust in the whole process,” she said.

On the bill’s goals, she noted that all of Stormont’s parties were opposed to them.

“These new proposals are fundamentally flawed and irresponsible interference with the justice system,” she said.

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