Controversial Legacy Bill risks Northern Ireland peace agreement, say US senators

By Isaac M August 29, 2023

Senior members of the US Congress have warned that the Northern Ireland peace agreement is at risk through the British government’s Legacy Bill – which victims of violence during The Troubles believe will block them from a path to justice.

Senator Chris Murphy and Senator Chris Coons have also expressed deep concern that the DUP’s refusal to take part in power-sharing, which has paralysed the executive and assembly in Stormont, is deepening divisions and could lead to instability.

A high-level bipartisan delegation from the Senate and House of Representatives has been in Britain to talk about the Ukraine war; the challenges posed by China; the Aukus treaty between Australia, the UK and the US and safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement.

Speaking to The Independent, Senator Murphy and Senator Coons stressed that peace and justice in Northern Ireland is of paramount importance in maintaining the “Special Relationship” between America and Britain.

At the same time, the senators have lauded the support given to Ukraine by the UK and stressed that Washington and London would continue to work in lockstep to counter Russian aggression.

The two Democrat senators stressed that the majority of their Republican colleagues remain committed to the defence of Ukraine, and said that the $24 billion in assistance President Joe Biden has asked to support Volodymyr Zelensky’s government is likely to get through Congress despite critical scrutiny in the House.

The American delegation also went to Dublin after London with talks with ministers, officials and members of civic society. They will discuss Brexit, support the Windsor Framework and point out that sizeable American commercial investment is coming to Northern Ireland if the peace deal is not jeopardised.

Despite progress being made on contentious issues, major hurdles remain, say the senators. They both point out that their constituencies in the US have large Irish-American communities with close connections to Eire and Ulster, who are concerned about events unfolding this side of the Atlantic.

“It is a source of great frustration that we don’t have a government in Stormont. We’re here to figure out how we can use whatever leverage we have as United States senators and congressmen to try to convince the DUP to get into government and to do what’s right for the people of Northern Ireland”, said Senator Murphy.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill proposed by Rishi Sunak’s government would end legal proceedings, including trials and inquests, for serious violence during the 30 years of The Troubles, offering a conditional amnesty for those accused of killing and maiming.

The impending legislation is opposed by civil rights groups, the Irish government and political parties in Northern Ireland, who all say it will deny justice to victims and their families. Parliament’s joint committee on human rights found the Bill as it stands risked widespread breach of human rights laws. A UK poll by Amnesty International found that nine out ten people expressing an opinion believe perpetrators of serious crimes should be prosecuted even if they were committed decades ago. The Bill has been championed by the minister for veterans’ affairs, Johnny Mercer.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris insisted recently it is a “crucial aspect” of the information recovery process for what took place during years of strife. “This government believes it’s the best mechanism by which we can generate the greatest volume of information in the quickest possible time to pass onto families and victims”, he said.

Senator Murphy said: “I’m certainly delivering a message on the very specific message of concern about the Legacy Bill. I continue to hear loud and clear from the people who have connections to those who still have claims and crimes that have lingered for decades that they want justice.

“They don’t want that path to justice shut down artificially by this legacy building. It’s important for me to be here on behalf of my constituents in the US who have ties to Northern Ireland to deliver a message of great concern”.

Senator Coons said: “We have listened to the concerns about this. All parties in Northern Ireland have opposed this Bill and the cutting off of any potential recovery it entails.

“In my state, Delaware, there’s been an Ulster Project that brings families from Northern Ireland to Delaware, and I too have heard concerns about cutting off any path towards resolving difficult or sensitive issues from the Troubles.”

Speaking about Northern Ireland and the EU. Senator Coons added: “In meetings I’ve held across the last three prime ministers, a consistent theme has been take Northern Ireland seriously, address the issues and challenges in terms of the EU, the impact of Brexit, and how to make sure that a hard border doesn’t re-emerge. There is a vital need to make sure that does not happen”.

The senators want to point out that the Windsor Framework provides the people of Northern Ireland access to the British and EU markets and the US can help in this running smoothly.

Senator Murphy said “It gives them a very clear and unique connection to Britain but also gives them easier access to the European markets than the rest of Britain has. The United States can play a role in helping to make sure that Northern Ireland sees the benefit of this unique status; we can help sell that.”

The US special rnvoy to Northern Ireland, Joe Kennedy III, is taking a delegation of US business leaders to Northern Ireland in October.

“Our hope is that the UK government will also see this opportunity for what it is and prioritise and pay attention to the economic development potential in Northern Ireland. My guess is that there are going to be American companies who are going to be very interested in setting up headquarters and facilities in Northern Ireland because of the Protocol,” said Senator Coons.

The delegation has been holding talks with the Ministry of Defence in London about weapon supplies to Ukraine, in preparation for debates in Congress about President Biden’s procurement request.

“We have had good conversations about their investment plans, and we’re trying to understand how we can better coordinate as we are about to debate a new Ukraine supplemental, and we want to make sure that we’re matching our investment appropriately with what’s happening here in Britain,” said Senator Murphy.

Senator Coons said that the US, UK and Nato can learn a lot about security innovations through what is happening on the ground in Ukraine.

“One of the areas of particular interest to me that connects to Ukraine, is the defence innovation accelerator for the North Atlantic which was recently launched here in London”, he said. “[The] United Kingdom has incredible innovation resources. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is quite focused on artificial intelligence, quantum computing and what the impact will be on our security positively and negatively. The process going forward, I hope, is that there are some good lessons learned for both the US, UK and all of Nato coming out of the current war in Ukraine.”

Asked about opposition among some Republicans to continue backing Ukraine, and what would happen if Donald Trump got back into the White House next year, Senator Murphy said: “This delegation has more Republicans than Democrats: and what we’re hearing is real strong support from Republicans for continued investment in Ukraine. The Republican party is going to fight this out.

“In the Senate both Chuck Schumer [ Democrat leader] and Mitch McConnell [ Republican leader] are vocal and consistent and strong in their support for Ukraine. I think in the end you’ll see us continue strong bipartisan, bicameral support for Ukraine.”

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