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New Troubles Bill: Seeking transparency or protecting the British State?

Proposed legislation aimed at protecting the UK government from its actions during the period known as The Troubles is under consideration today in the British Parliament.

Members of Parliament are currently engaging in a discussion on a novel bill concerning The Troubles, the term for the violent period in Northern Ireland that lasted from the late 1960s until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. This era was marked by sectarian conflict primarily between predominantly Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans, who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland, and predominantly Protestant unionists or loyalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Although the proposed legislation asserts to bring justice and clarity to those affected by the conflict, a closer examination of its objectives and provisions, as well as the ongoing conversation surrounding it, indicates that it may not fulfil this claim.

Similar to the Overseas Operations Act, an international equivalent, the bill appears primarily interested in providing immunity to the British government. These ideologies driving the bill were clearly displayed during a recent Lords amendment debate, which exhibited a strong sense of British exceptionalism, fear of Irish unification, and a readiness of the British establishment to sacrifice its own citizens to protect the state from accountability.

On April 24, 2023, protesters gathered outside the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast to voice their opposition to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. Among them was Belfast councilor JJ Magee, whose sister Anne was killed by Loyalists in 1976. Magee believes that the bill is a free pass for the British government for its violent actions carried out by its security forces during The Troubles.

Introduced by Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis in May 2022, the bill’s second reading in the Commons highlighted then the establishment’s perspective on the legacy of The Troubles. Lewis spoke of the broken current system, which according to him fails to deliver justice or understanding, and proposed the formation of a new independent commission focused on information recovery. He also reassured veterans, suggesting they would no longer live in fear of legal retribution for their actions during The Troubles. This proposition of legal immunity in exchange for honest testimony was met with strong criticism by those directly affected by The Troubles.

The bill has a significant number of critics, including Amnesty International, who insists that crimes like murder and torture cannot be excused, regardless of when they occurred. The Centre for Military Justice (CMJ) has also voiced its concerns, arguing that the bill doesn’t protect the interests of the armed forces as presented, but rather eliminates ongoing legal cases by Republican families and also effectively shuts the unsolved cases of British soldiers killed by nationalist and other paramilitaries.

Even abroad, the bill is met with disapproval. In January 2023, a bipartisan group of US Congressmen warned that the laws could threaten the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Additionally, the Pat Finucane Centre, an Irish legal NGO focusing on The Troubles, condemned the bill for contravening the European Court of Human Rights and all recognized international human rights norms.

In the House of Lords, debates on the bill have ranged from concerns about the glorification of terrorism to the fear of Irish Republican culture, particularly among the younger population. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the bill’s true motive isn’t a concern for the armed forces but rather shielding the state from legal scrutiny at any cost.

In conclusion, the Northern Ireland Troubles Bill is a problematic legislation that attempts to insulate the British government from accountability for its actions during The Troubles. Its approach of closing all cases related to the conflict, including those of British soldiers killed, indicates that the primary objective isn’t safeguarding the interests of the veterans but protecting the state from legal challenges. This reveals a deep-rooted fear of a united Ireland and a strong sense of coloniality and British exceptionalism, all of which undermine the assertion that the bill would result in a fair resolution.