James Sunderland backs Northern Ireland (Legacy & Reconciliation) Bill

James Sunderland backs a Bill to address the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles and promote reconciliation and supports the protection of veterans from vexatious complaints and hopes that the Bill will enable Northern Ireland to emerge into a peaceful and prosperous future.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

Thank you for calling me for the graveyard shift, Mr Deputy Speaker.

There has been plenty of passion and emotion in this important debate, but I want to give my view, as a relatively new Member and, I hope, a pragmatist. Today is about the past, the present and the future, and it is about people, many of whom were terribly caught up in the troubles. It is already clear that the Bill will not be a panacea—far from it—but it does have defined outcomes that I believe to be broadly positive, for reasons that I shall explain. No one will pretend that this is at all easy, or that it is a formality.

Let me begin by commending the Secretary of State and his staff in the Northern Ireland Office for acting in good faith throughout. This process is very difficult legally, and very sensitive politically. It has required strategic patience and huge personal and professional resilience under pressure. Ultimately the Bill is a no-win statute, because it will not bring people back, and it will not bring solace to victims and their families, in that those whom we should be holding to account may now never be brought to justice. However, I believe that it will ultimately provide some solace and some closure, although not a lot. Despite all its imperfections, I believe that it will do what it says on the tin, as the least worst option.

This legislation has done the rounds. It has been through the Irish Government, veterans groups and victims groups, and it is probably the missing chapter of the Good Friday agreement of 24 years ago. It therefore comes as no surprise to anyone. It has, I believe, received due diligence. It has taken longer than expected, and yes, the Northern Ireland Office has received criticism—not least from Conservative Members—for the strategic pause that has been necessary, but it was a manifesto promise, it was in the Queen’s Speech, and it is finally being delivered. It is now deliverable as well, but it is also a heavy responsibility for the Government.

What I want to say about the Bill relates first to veterans, veterans groups and those who may still be serving. Do I think that the Bill is the right way to protect veterans from vexatious complaints? The simple answer is yes. Why? Because it breaks the cycle. It ends the misery, and it ends the knocks on the door at 3 o’clock in the morning. We owe it to these people, who served in good faith in Northern Ireland. I commend the good work of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), and the work of so many veterans groups. This has gone on for too long, and it needs to be killed now.

Of course, it is not possible to deliver legacy protection for veterans in isolation. It has to be able to withstand legal challenge. It has to be article 2 compliant. It has to get through Strasbourg and comply with the Human Rights Act. The principle of legal equivalence underpins that statute because it has to, and therefore the premise of conditional amnesty is rightly pivotal. It was right to move away from the original premise of what might be termed “new and compelling evidence”. Who decides that, and how does one draw the line in law? It is impossible: the bottom line is that one cannot. I therefore understand the logic of why a blanket statute of limitations has been introduced, and I think that is now the right thing to do.

What does the Bill actually do? We know that it establishes the independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery. In theory, it creates an environment of openness, which may give answers and some closure, but I appreciate the flaws in the argument. It will grant immunity from prosecution to those who engage with the commission. The important point is that legal equivalence does not mean moral equivalence, so it is absolutely right that conditional amnesty is dependent on engagement. The Bill will end troubles-based criminal investigations and protracted legal proceedings, which is the right thing to do, and it should mean the commissioning of a record of every troubles-related death from the ICRIR. The list goes on.

However, in the interests of balance, I should point out that the PSNI currently has a caseload of at least 900 unsolved cases. Op Kenova, which was mentioned earlier, has unfinished business for many, and victims and families will not get the resolution they seek. I am also acutely conscious of the concerns of those who believe that protagonists just will not engage. In my view, we have to give this a chance. It is important that we do that.

The Bill is divisive, as we have heard today, and we have to go forward as carefully as we can, mindful of the particular sensitivity of victims’ families. That is a given. But the time is now 24 years on from the Good Friday agreement, and we have no choice. We have to deliver on the promise that was made, not least to our veterans. Personally, I am bewildered and disappointed by Labour’s decision not to be in the Chamber today and to vote against the Bill. In addition to doing the right thing for our security services and our veterans, the Bill is ultimately about national politics, not party politics, and I hope that my colleagues on the Opposition Benches will do the right thing this afternoon.

Stuart Anderson 

I certainly laboured that point, but it is a point that really needs labouring. Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour is not the party of veterans, and that its action tonight will be seen across the veteran community?

James Sunderland 

My personal view is that we have to show the requisite support to our veterans, our armed forces and our security services. Today is ultimately about two things. It is about drawing a line under vexatious complaints and about hoping that Northern Ireland can emerge into a peaceful and prosperous future. I very much hope that that happens.