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Protests in Belfast as new Northern Ireland legacy law halting inquests and prosecutions related to the ‘Troubles’ take effect

Families of victims from Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” protested yesterday (May 1, 2024) in Belfast against a new UK law that they say denies them justice. The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 stops all pending coroner’s inquests and grants immunity to past combatants, affecting inquests into the deaths of 74 people.

Protestors at the demonstration held signs stating “Legacy families have a right to an inquest” and “Bill of Shame,” expressing their disappointment and anger. Suzanne Kerr, whose grandfather was killed by British soldiers in 1971, voiced the collective sentiment, saying, “It’s a very dark day for the families and for justice.”

The law aims to draw a line under the conflict, which claimed over 3,500 lives over three decades, by halting inquests, civil cases, and criminal prosecutions. It has faced widespread criticism for potentially protecting British army veterans and paramilitaries.

Critics include victims’ rights groups, political parties in Northern Ireland, the United Nations, and the EU’s Council of Europe. Amnesty International has criticized the law as a “cliff edge for truth, justice, and accountability,” and an international panel of experts has warned it might damage Britain’s international reputation.

The responsibility for investigating the Troubles has now shifted to the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. However, families at the protest expressed skepticism about the commission’s ability to deliver justice.

The protests come as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) back in London comes under intense scrutiny as the Inquiry into allegations of unlawful killings and cover-ups by UK Special Forces in Afghanistan faces significant delays and procrastination. In additon, Johnny Mercer, the UK’s Veterans’ Minister, has received an extension until May 8 to comply with an order from the Afghanistan Inquiry, which requires him to reveal the identities of individuals who informed him about potential war crimes by British special forces in Afghanistan, only adds to a sense that tensions are emerging between the inquiry and the MoD.

Mercer, who risks imprisonment for non-compliance, had previously resisted disclosing these names during his March testimony, citing the need to protect the integrity of his informants. The inquiry issued a Section 21 notice demanding Mercer justify his refusal to provide the information. The situation underscores significant tensions between the need for confidentiality and the imperatives of justice and accountability in the ongoing investigation into these serious accusations.

What is unfolding in Northern Ireland raises even more questions as to the impunity enjoyed by British troops in the face of miscarriages of justice.