Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly am 1:45 pm ar 17 Mehefin 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:45, 17 Mehefin 2024

3. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Justice to outline her Department’s engagement with the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR). (AQO 587/22-27)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

My Department has had limited engagement to date with the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, which was formally established on 1 May. The Commissioner for Investigations, Peter Sheridan, wrote to me in March to update me on the development of the commission and its operating model. In his letter, he offered to meet me to brief me more fully on those matters. That meeting took place on 4 June. The commission has also requested a meeting with my officials, which is due to take place next month.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 places statutory duties on relevant authorities, including the PSNI and the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, to provide such information, documents and material as the commission may reasonably require to enable it to carry out reviews of deaths and other harmful contact during the period of the Troubles. I am aware that the commission has been engaging directly with those organisations on how those interfaces will be managed. There has also been some preliminary engagement with Forensic Science Northern Ireland and the legacy inquest unit in the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service.

My opposition to the legislation passed in Westminster and my concerns about the impact that it will have on the right of victims and survivors to access justice and on wider public confidence in the justice system remain. The justice organisations for which my Department has responsibility will, nevertheless, fully comply with any obligations now placed on them by the Act and will not seek to obstruct or frustrate in any way the delivery of truth or justice to those impacted most directly by the Troubles.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, I acknowledge that the Act places legal obligations on your Department and its bodies and it would be wrong to obstruct them, but is it also the case that, given that every party in the Chamber opposes the Act, it would be right for your officials to plan now on the basis of that Act's being repealed, as is the policy of what will, hopefully, be the incoming UK Government? Does the Minister agree with that? Will she instruct her officials to plan and prepare for that eventuality?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I am already committed to the repeal of the legislation, and I have been clear that that is what, I believe, should happen. We have to look at what has been suggested by Labour Party statements in the round. While Sir Keir Starmer has pledged to repeal the Act if there is a Labour Government following the general election on 4 July, the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Hilary Benn, speaking on 'Good Morning Ulster', said that Labour would remove immunity from the Act and restore civil cases and inquests. There therefore appears to be something of a dichotomy in Labour's approach. My Department will make preparations for whichever outcome the next Government announce in due course and, in the interim, abide by our legal requirements on cooperation.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

The Minister will be aware that not everybody is willing to engage with the new bodies and that some innocent victims and their families have trust issues with the new arrangements. What reassurance can she give to those families that they and their cases will not be left behind?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I deeply regret the fact that I can give such people no consolation, because the matter is outwith the competence of my Department and the Assembly. Responsibility for legacy legislation has been taken by the Westminster Government. They have made their decision that that is the way forward. I have consistently made clear my opposition to the Act, and I fully support calls for it to be repealed. I hope that whoever is in government following the general election will make that a priority and will listen to victims and survivors and support them in their quest for truth and justice. I cannot, however, offer them an alternative means of seeking truth and justice, which has been barred by legislation from Westminster.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

While the legislation remains in place, what funding is the Department expecting to receive in order to service it?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

One of the great challenges that we have had is being able to determine what burden the new legislative arrangements will place on my Department. While the Government are clear that they believe that the legislation will alleviate some of the pressures that the Department has faced when handling the issues, no allowance has been made for, for example, the funding of some requests that have been made in addition to what we receive through the block grant. I can think of examples in which that is the case. I have, however, made it clear to all the organisations that work with and are funded by the Department of Justice that any work done for the ICRIR is a separate line of accounting and needs to be treated as such and that costs need to be recovered from the UK Government. Treasury rules are clear that whoever owns the policy pays the bill, and that has to apply in this case.