Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland have written to Secretary of State Brandon Lewis expressing their ‘deep concern’ at the UK Government’s proposed approach to dealing with legacy issues.
Last month, the Government pledged to “end the cycle of re-investigations” in a set of proposals to deal with the country’s troubled past.
Once cases have been considered, there will be a legal bar on any future investigation occurring, under the new proposals.
Mr Lewis said ending repeated re-investigations, where there is no new compelling evidence, will deliver on his Government’s promise to protect former soldiers from “vexatious claims”.
However, the Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland have expressed ‘alarm and disappointment’ at the new position being taken by the UK Government, ‘specifically its departure from the understanding inherent in the Stormont House Agreement to which all parties signed up to with good-will’.
’It is deeply concerning to us that the UK Government has departed from this fundamental principle and has moved away from the position of equal access to justice for all,’ they wrote in the letter to Mr Lewis.
‘As a society, we must face up to the reality of the past,’ they continued. ‘We must consider the actions of all involved. State and non-state actors must be equally accountable before the law. Otherwise no authentic reconciliation can be achieved.’
Noting that they had liaised with the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs (NICCOSA), the bishops reiterated the NICOSSA response: ‘We therefore support the ongoing pursuit of appropriate criminal, legal and civic justice for all victims.’
the bishops also noted that the timing of the announcement was ‘unfortunate’, ‘coming at a time when our citizens, and people across the world, are dealing with the serious impact of the global coronavirus pandemic’.
They pointed out that the implications of the proposals were therefore not receiving the widespread scrutiny they might otherwise receive.
‘We also caution that any similar proposed legislation to the Bill referred to in this letter, which would make specific provisions for Northern Ireland, could destabilise the Executive and other institutions which are only recently operational again after three years of political sclerosis, and currently exist on a fragile equilibrium,’ they added.
‘Any such legislation would undoubtedly provoke significant political and public reaction as a time when a strong and unified Executive, focussed on delivering the best outcomes for the health of citizens in NI, is needed more than ever.’
Picture: Archive photo, dated 20th January 2010, shows two women walking past a mural depicting victims of the troubles in west Belfast. (Niall Carson/PA).