When is a T roubles-related offence not T roubles-related? Here’s what Northern Ireland Office minister and Conservative MP Conor Burns claimed on Wednesday from Westminster’s floor as Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis looked on, nodding: “We do not believe that sexual offences can be defined as being T roubles-related.”
That’s not what Burns wrote to me just nine days earlier. In that letter, he stated: “I want you to be in no doubt that this Government, and I personally recognise that any sexual crimes — including those committed during the Troubles — cause very serious and lasting harm to victims. Please be assured that the Government is in no way suggesting that such victims aren’t Troubles victims...”
It is frustrating that the minister privately stated one thing to a paramilitary victim of rape and cover-up, and appeared to suggest something different publicly; conduct which caused trauma, and for which he should apologise.
For the record, when my rape cases came to court, the burden was placed on me to prove my abuser was an IRA member before the rape case could even be heard — an issue which led to the court case collapsing, not guilty verdicts, and a public apology from the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Colum Eastwood’s contribution was clear: “We know of individual cases in which members of paramilitary organisations raped members of our community; the rape was investigated by paramilitary organisations and covered up. These are high-profile cases, which the minister knows about and which would not have happened in the same way in Liverpool or Manchester.”
Why was this issue in dispute? Last week, the Government railroaded through their Legacy Bill at committee stage, which will allow perpetrators of any Troubles-related crime which caused serious harm to victims to seek immunity from prosecution.
A month ago I raised with opposition parties the issue of ongoing child protection concerns. The Labour Party and the DUP tabled Amendment 115 to specifically exclude those who have committed Troubles-related sexual offences, and those who covered it up, from benefiting from immunity. Perfectly reasonable, you would think.
The Tory Government did not want Amendment 115, and for a while it appeared they were intent on taking it to a vote, something which appalled various backbenchers, including former Northern Secretary Julian Smith, who rose to his feet: “I have letters in front of me to rape victims declaring that they are victims of Troubles-related activity. Where do the minister’s words leave victims who have received letters stating clearly that they are Troubles-related victims, and how do they avoid their perpetrators being able to seek an amnesty?”
Labour shadow Northern Secretary Peter Kyle heaped pressure on the Tory party: “On second reading, I raised the warnings from experts that the bill would allow immunity to be granted to rapists. During the debate, ministers insisted that that was not the case. Since then, we have had months of Select Committee evidence hearings where multiple witnesses confirmed the bill would allow immunity to be granted to perpetrators of sexual offences committed as part of the Troubles.”
Kyle was intent on pushing his Amendment to a vote. Under pressure, Burns and Lewis left the chamber with Kyle to negotiate a solution.
Inside the chamber other MPs spoke of their support for Amendment 115. Making it clear to the house that Troubles-related sexual violence was an issue, Ian Paisley told any MP in doubt: “Speak to Máiría Cahill… if we do not address this sexual offences matter immediately, we do ourselves a gross disservice.” His party colleague Gavin Robinson also said: “This is a hugely important amendment... and it has the support of our party.” The SNP’s Richard Thomson also offered his party’s “very strong support”.
Backed into a corner, NIO ministers had no option but to accept the amendment, with Burns stating: “We have heard loud and clear the mood of the committee”, though added: “We will work over the coming days to see if we can find a refined wording that we can bring back to the house on report.”
Report stage is tomorrow, and Burns would do well to leave Amendment 115 as it stands, for it is not it which needs to be “refined”, but instead what appears to be his understanding of a very serious issue.
He has the NIO to thank for that. Had the government listened and acted when initial concerns were raised, an unedifying debate about Troubles-related sexual offences could have been avoided. Instead, the NIO angered victims and left their ministers embarrassed and exposed.
Burns stated something else in the Commons, on which he should reflect, when he said: “Northern Ireland was not at war… In that sense, the analogy of rape in war does not translate easily across.” Tell that to Paudie McGahon, who was raped in an IRA “safe house” and warned by his convicted rapist that if he told anyone he would be “found dead on a Border road”. Tell it, minister, to the victim of a paramilitary gang rape in Belfast.
Tell it to the teenage boy who was raped in a bathroom while being beaten by paramilitaries. Tell it to those child victims whose abusers have been spirited out of the jurisdiction by the IRA. All of this happened — and there are records which the British government can access if in doubt.
I only discovered 20 years later that statutory agencies and intelligence services had contemporaneous information which could have saved me from trauma at the time, and protected other children, yet did nothing. I am damned if I am going to allow anyone else to suffer a similar fate.
Lewis and Burns have a responsibility to protect other children from paramilitary sexual abusers who may be still abusing. Making legislation watertight tomorrow, to ensure categorically that they won’t be granted immunity, is the least they can do.