Peace without Prosecution: Analyzing the passage of the UK Trouble’s Bill

Robert Malloy, October 2023


After more than a year of deliberation, the UK government has moved forward with the passage of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. This legislation is aimed at shifting the approach of achieving a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland. From the 1960s through the early 2000s, Northern Ireland witnessed one of the most violent sectarian conflicts in modern European history, during a period dubbed ‘the troubles’. In its current draft, the bill aims to change the peace process from one of retributive justice to one of restorative justice, through the process of truth and reconciliation. Accordingly, the legislation includes amendments aimed at granting amnesty for those guilty of murder during the troubles, in exchange for cooperation with the newly established Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), which will be set up following the Bill’s royal assent [1]. The legislation has been met with staunch opposition both from victim’s families in Northern Ireland, as well as from the international community. The Republic of Ireland has promised launch legal challenges, and many support groups for victims of the troubles have criticized the bill. [2]. Truth and reconciliation councils have proved effective in peace processes elsewhere in the world. However, it is necessary to explore if this type of peace process is effective in this context, and what the passage of the legislation will mean for the UK’s international image.

The Atrocities of the Troubles

 Though the origins of the troubles stretch back centuries, the period of violence encapsulated by the term began in the late 1960s. Civil rights groups representing the predominately catholic nationalist minority in Northern Ireland began demonstrations aimed at securing greater rights and freedom from discrimination. These demonstrations were met with backlash from the protestant, unionist majority in Northern Ireland, which feared a descent into republicanism and eventual Irish reunification. The early period of the troubles witnessed nationalist and unionist mobs riot and clash with one another as well as with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which was routinely accused of both inaction and the use of excessive force in dispelling the riots [3].

The violence escalated dramatically, as nationalists and unionists formed paramilitary organizations and participated in ever escalating bombing and gunfire attacks on both one another as well as civilians on both sides. In 1969, the British government deployed the military to Northern Ireland in the hopes of keeping unionist and nationalist communities separate. While initially welcomed by both sides as a peacekeeping force, the conduct of British forces during the troubles, such as raids on private houses and internment without trial, soon soured their image among the public and served to further the violence by stoking tensions [4]. British military involvement in the troubles witnessed it’s most notorious event during the Bloody Sunday incident, where British soldiers opened fire on peaceful protestors in Londonderry, killing fourteen [5]. Atrocities were not only committed by government forces but also by paramilitary groups throughout the conflict. The Ulster Volunteer Force, a unionist militia formed to combat the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), is alleged to have killed over 500 civilians during the troubles [6]. The PIRA for its part was also responsible for a number of atrocities against civilians, including the infamous Kingsmill massacre, in which 10 protestant civilians were removed from a bus and systematically executed by the PIRA, with those responsible never being apprehended [7]. Indeed, nationalist paramilitaries have been accused of being responsible for as many as 60% of all deaths recorded in the troubles period [8].

Despite the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and subsequent withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland in 2007, the process of healing in Northern Ireland has been fraught with difficulty. The violence enacted throughout the conflict came from all sides and was often indiscriminate in nature. As a result, many atrocities have gone unpunished and many families have yet to receive justice for their loved ones killed in the conflict.

Reconciliation in the context of Northern Ireland

 The bill proposed by the UK government will empower the ICRIR to collect information on the atrocities committed during the troubles in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. The stated goal of this process is to provide information to families, victims and survivors of troubles related violence in order to promote reconciliation within Northern Ireland [9]. Such processes have seen success elsewhere internationally. In South Africa following the fall of the apartheid regime, a truth and reconciliation commission was launched to expose the crimes committed under the previous government. This ensured that South African society could collectively heal and move forward, without devolving into retributive justice. Canada has also implemented a similar process, promoting truth and reconciliation with first nations peoples of Canada regarding crimes committed within the Canadian residential school system. However, both Canada and South Africa enjoyed at least majority public support for their truth and reconciliation commissions. As noted previously, many victim support groups in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government and EU, have been vocal critics of the Bill, arguing it does not do enough for victims of the conflict.

One case study which policy makers may wish to look to is Sierra Leone. Following the end of their civil war 2002, the international community in cooperation with Sierra Leone, established a hybrid system. This system saw the worst offenders in the conflict prosecuted criminally, while the vast majority of participants of the conflict engaged in a truth and reconciliation process. While this did result in the successful prosecution of many of the conflict’s most egregious offenders, the truth and reconciliation commission failed to gain significant traction. Local support for the commission was low, as it was seen as a foreign imposition by the international community. While beneficial in creating an accurate image of the conflict, the commission did little to address the material needs of those brutalized in the conflict [10]. Given the strong public opposition the commission has faced thus far, it may be wise for ICRIR to avoid the same mistakes made during the peace process in Sierra Leone. The strongest way to ensure this is to allow direct participation from the local population in not only the evidence presented before the commission, but also how the commission is structured and conducted. Such an action would arguably prevent the perception of the commission as merely a London ordered directive, but rather of a grassroots approach to peacebuilding.

UK Peacemaker Status and International Reputation

As the legislation looks to begin, barring any successful legal challenge, the UK will begin a new approach to peacemaking in one of Europe’s most significant conflicts. The results will undoubtedly be watched by the global community. The Council of Europe has been a vocal critic of the amnesty clause [11], and with Ireland an EU member state, the legal challenge they hope to launch against the legislation may find a receptive audience within the European community [12]. As such, there is considerable significance for the UK and its reputation as a law-abiding member of the international community, as well as its commitment to justice. This point is especially important, amid allegations that a principal motivation for the legislation is to protect British state forces, such as the British Army and RUC, from prosecution for their misconduct during the troubles [13].

To confront these allegations and ensure that the peace process in Northern Ireland is successful, the UK must ensure that the commission and its proceedings both include victims of the conflict, as well as ensuring their agency over the process. The stated goals of the commission are deeply admirable, as the legacy of the conflict continues to loom over all of Ireland. However, the necessity of truth commissions to possess public support cannot be ignored. As such, the commission must do more to engender support among those who it proclaims to be interesting in healing. The issue of amnesty must be revisited and ideally, should include more input from Northern Irish citizens. The hybrid system operated by Sierra Leone could prove to be one alternative, which may allow for the prosecution of those with the most responsibility for the violence, while allowing the society at large to come to terms with its collective responsibility through a truth commission. How the truth commission peace process will develop going forward should not be determined here, nor in London, but must instead be determined among the communities of Northern Ireland who deserve to have their calls for justice finally answered.

[1] HL Bill 169 Commons Reason, UK Government, (2023).

[2] Greene, Tommy. “justice denied”: Victims’ families slam UK’s Northern Ireland legacy bill, September 8, 2023.

[3] McGreevy, Ronan. “How the Troubles Began: A Timeline.” The Irish Times, August 15, 2019.

[4] “Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Troubles (Northern Ireland).” AOAV, October 26, 2022.,the%20British%20military%20%5B13%5D.

[5] Feeney, Oisin. “What Actually Happened on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland.”, January 30, 2023.

[6] “UVF Has a Long History of Murder.” The Irish News, June 19, 2023.,month%2Dold%20son%20looked%20on.

[7] McCambridge, Jonathan. “Kingsmill Inquest ‘a Painful and Frustrating Process for Victims’ Families’.”, March 31, 2023.

[8] Roche, Barry. “Academic Says Republicans Responsible for 60% of Troubles Deaths.” The Irish Times, August 11, 2019.

[9] “About Us.” Independent Commission for Reconciliation Information Recovery.

[10] Veney, Cassandra R., and Dick Simpson. African democracy and development challenges for post-conflict African nations. Lanham, Md: Lexington, 2012.

[11] “UK Criticised Again by Council of Europe over Troubles Bill.” Irish Legal News, June 8, 2023.

[12] Al Jazeera. “Ireland considers legal action against UK’s Northern Ireland legacy bill”, September 4, 2023.

[13] Al Jazeera. “UK’s controversial Northern Ireland “legacy” bill: All you need to know”, September 6, 2023.