Legal blow for UK plan to offer immunity to Troubles-era killers

DUBLIN – The U.K. government’s plans to give conditional immunity to killers from Northern Ireland’s Troubles-era conflict would flout the fundamentals of European human rights law, a Belfast judge ruled Wednesday in support of victims challenging the law.

Justice Adrian Colton’s judgment deals a blow to the core concept of the Legacy Act, which became law last September and is due to come into force in May.

The act seeks to end all civil and criminal cases connected to political violence committed before the Good Friday peace accord of 1998, and replace them with a new fact-finding commission able to grant legal immunity to witnesses who testify about their involvement in those shootings and bombings.

The British government says its plan would promote reconciliation and allow Northern Ireland society to consign its decades of bloodshed to history. But it is opposed by all local parties and faces a separate legal challenge in Strasbourg filed by the Irish government.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told the House of Commons that ministers would study the Belfast High Court ruling “very, very carefully” but remain “committed to implementing the Legacy Act.” This sets the stage for the U.K. to challenge the ruling at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal and, if necessary, the Supreme Court in London.

Colton did rule that the proposed fact-finding body — the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery — should be able to conduct human rights-compliant investigations.

The Belfast-based commission, which the U.K. formed in May 2023 before the act was even passed, welcomed that part of the judge’s ruling and pledged to “reflect” Colton’s judgment “as we refine our proposals to carry out independent investigations from this summer.”

But, critically, the judge cast doubt on the legality of the commission’s key proposed feature — a power to provide cast-iron legal shields to cooperative witnesses against criminal prosecutions or civil lawsuits. Without this function, it’s doubtful whether any perpetrators, whether paramilitary veterans or retired British security personnel, would volunteer to implicate themselves in unsolved crimes.

Colton said he was “satisfied that the immunity from prosecution provisions under Section 19 of the act are in breach” of key European Convention on Human Rights protections.

His judgment follows eight days of Belfast court hearings in November during which challenges against the Legacy Act filed by 20 litigants were combined into one umbrella case. Lawsuits examined in detail by Colton were filed by the widow of an innocent man who stumbled into a British army ambush of an Irish Republican Army unit in 1987, and by three families targeted by pro-British “loyalist” militants in a trio of 1990s gun attacks.

Colton said the act’s offering of conditional immunity to truth-telling perpetrators would deny surviving victims and relatives of the dead the right to justice defined in Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the U.K. incorporated into domestic law in 1998 alongside the Good Friday Agreement.

Shielding killers from prosecution in these cases, he said, would “render illusory the guarantees in respect of an individual’s right to life and the right not to be ill-treated.”

The judge also questioned the U.K. government’s core claim that the Legacy Act would allow Northern Ireland society finally to leave behind a conflict that left nearly 3,700 dead.

“There is no evidence that the granting of immunity under the act will in any way contribute to reconciliation in Northern Ireland,” Colton said. “Indeed the evidence is to the contrary.”