Northern Ireland Legacy Investigations
The current Northern Ireland legacy investigations commenced as a result of the Stormont House Agreement between the UK government and the government of the Republic of Ireland. In the agreement the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) was set up to take forward investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths. (The "Troubles" ended in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement).
The most recent reincarnation of the HIU is the Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB). The following is an extract from the website of the Police Service of Northern Ireland:
"Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) is an investigative branch within the Police Service of Northern (PSNI). Sitting independently of Crime Operations Department, LIB's role is primarily to investigate homicide and security forces related deaths arising from the Northern Ireland 'Troubles' between 1969 and 2004. LIB are also responsible for unsolved 'non-troubles' related deaths between 1969 and 2004. At the same time we recognise that the needs of victim's families go beyond criminal investigations."
The Government's current position on the legacy investigations has been recently published. On 26 October 2020 the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee published its Third Report of Session 2019-21, Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past: the Government's New Proposals (Interim Report), (HC 329) -https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/3186/documents/29458/default/. The Government's response was received on 13 January 2021 and can be read here - https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmniaf/1153/115302.htm. The conclusion of the Government's response includes the following statement: "...the Government remains determined to make progress on legacy issues, and has always been clear that it will engage with the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland parties, and civic society, including victims groups, as part of this process".
Following the Conservative party victory at the last general election, legislation aimed at protecting serving soldiers and veterans was introduced. The Government's Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill is now approaching its final stages. It has been through the House of Commons and is currently at the Report stage in the House of Lords. After this stage it only requires a 3rd (final) reading in the House of Lords following which it will likely receive Royal Assent and then become law.
The Bill aims to establish new restrictions on bringing proceedings against current and former members of the Armed Forces, including:
- a presumption against prosecutions after five years (effectively introducing a statute of limitations); and
- consideration of the conditions members of the Armed Forces are under during overseas operations.
The Bill will also:
- introduce time limits on some civil claims and claims made under the Human Rights Act; and
- require the Secretary of State to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights regarding future overseas operations.
However, of significant importance is the fact that the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland as operations there are not considered 'overseas'.
Inquests and Prosecutions
An inquest is a legal investigation to establish the circumstances surrounding a person's death, including how, when and why the death occurred. Unlike criminal trials, inquests tend not to try to establish whether anyone was responsible for a person's death. Please see the Inquests section on this website to get more information as to how these inquests will operate and the potential consequences. At the beginning of 2017, it was understood that there were over 50 stalled inquests yet to be heard relating to fatalities during the Troubles
The following is an extract from the UK Parliament website regarding Dennis Hutchings, a veteran in his 70s who is currently facing trial for a fatal shooting in 1974:
"Following the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in 1974, Mr Dennis Hutchings, who was serving in The Life Guards, was subject to an investigation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Director of Public Prosecutions. No charges were brought but Mr Hutchings was investigated again in 2011 by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). He was told then, that no further action would be taken. Despite this, in 2015 the LIB reopened the case. Mr Hutchings, who is now in his 70s, was arrested during a dawn raid, and in June 2017, it was announced that the evidence was sufficient to justify putting Mr Hutchings on trial for attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham. Mr Hutchings was due to be formally charged on 30 June 2017 but the hearing was delayed until September due to Mr Hutchings ill-health".
Mr Hutchings is still awaiting trial. A handful of other veterans are also the subject of pending criminal prosecutions and the trial of 'Soldiers A and C' (two former members of The Parachute Regiment, both now in their 70's) is due to commence on 26 April 2021 in Belfast.