The cross-party talks that ran from 8 September to 17 November last year, which culminated in the Fresh Start agreement, brought us closer than ever before to consensus on the best way to deal with Northern Ireland’s past. While we established much common ground, it was not possible to reach agreement on all issues. I am committed to working with the Northern Ireland parties, with the Irish Government as appropriate, and with representatives of victims and survivors, to build on the progress made during the talks. The UK Government is determined to resolve the outstanding issues that are preventing the establishment of the legacy institutions set out in the Stormont House Agreement.
One of these institutions is the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR). This will be an independent body designed to enable victims and survivors privately to receive information about the Troubles-related deaths of their next of kin. As set out in the Stormont House Agreement, and building on the precedent of the Independent Commission on the Location of Victims’ Remains, the ICIR will be an international body. To that end, the UK and Irish Governments have signed an international agreement to enable the establishment of the ICIR and to set out its functions. Today I have placed a copy of this treaty in the libraries of both Houses.
The ICIR will be an important institution which will help victims and survivors to seek information which it has not been possible to obtain by other means. Engagement by families with the ICIR will be entirely voluntary. Information provided to the ICIR about deaths within its remit will not be admissible in court, something which families will always be told in advance. The ICIR will not, however, provide any form of amnesty or immunity from prosecution.
This Government believes in the rule of law and would not countenance such a step. As the Stormont House Agreement set out, information provided to the ICIR will be protected but no individual will be protected from prosecution if evidence is obtained by other means. It is the Government’s intention that the legislation needed to implement the ICIR will contain provisions clearly setting this out.
It had been our aim to lay the treaty before Parliament at the same time as introducing the legislation required to establish the legacy bodies. However, as agreement has not yet been reached on this legislation, this is not possible. Once any treaty is formally laid, Parliament has a period of 21 sitting days, in which it can resolve that the treaty should not be ratified, in accordance with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. I believe that it would be best if this consideration took place alongside the legislation, which will contain more detail about how the ICIR will function. I propose therefore formally to lay the treaty once we are able also to introduce legislation. These particular circumstances mean that placing a copy of the treaty in the libraries of both Houses is an appropriate way to ensure that Parliament is aware of the text of the treaty, without instigating the formal process of consideration.
In addition to the ICIR, the Stormont House Agreement envisaged the establishment of the Historical Investigations Unit, the Oral History Archive and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group. Together, this set of institutions provides the best opportunity to help Northern Ireland deal with its past and provide better outcomes for victims and survivors, the people who we must never forget suffered more than anyone else as a result of the Troubles. The Government is committed to implementing the Stormont House Agreement and to establishing the legacy bodies it contains. I will continue to meet victims’ representatives and others over the coming days and weeks to discuss these matters and to build support for the new institutions.