Abortion in Northern Ireland has had a fraught and frequently distressing history. Until 2019 when the UK Parliament reformed the law, the jurisdiction had the most restrictive approach to abortion in the UK. But even this reform has not reformed the reality, either for those seeking abortion services or information and counselling on such services or for those who work at providers of such services lawfully. I have previously written about the situation as it stood in March 2021, and the reality has changed little since then, with two notable exceptions. In March 2022, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill (Northern Ireland) (‘SAZ Bill’) to create buffer zones around lawful abortion providers, in an attempt to criminalise the harassment and intimidation of people who seek or work in such places. On 2 December 2022, tired of the glacial pace and political controversy in commissioning abortion services, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland moved to commission such services himself. In the interim, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland (‘AGNI’) referred the SAZ Bill to the UK Supreme Court to determine whether it was lawful.
But the SAZ Reference also drew another ECHR issue to the Court’s attention: the assessment of proportionality and reasonable excuse defences in criminal trials involving protests. The main points here were the consideration of the Court’s previous judgment in Ziegler and the judgment of the Divisional Court (England and Wales) in Cuciurean. Unusually for a devolution reference, therefore, the Supreme Court sat as a panel of seven Justices. The SAZ Reference judgment was unanimous and authored by Lord Reed.
In 1998, people across the island of Ireland overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement, in a historic decision which signalled hope for a post-sectarian, post-conflict future. The UK Parliament responded to this popular mandate by returning devolution to Northern Ireland. On 24 May 2022, the reverse happened: in the face of vehement opposition from Northern Ireland, the UK Parliament voted to clear the second stage of a Bill that would drastically impact efforts to deal with the Northern Ireland conflict.
The Bill: an overview
There are 4 main parts to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. Part 1 defines ‘the Troubles’, traditionally a phrase used to euphemistically describe the violent political and sectarian conflict which lasted for a little over 3 decades in Northern Ireland. Part 2 establishes a new body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), charged with (among other things) reviewing deaths and certain other ‘harmful conduct’ and granting immunity from prosecution to individuals in exchange for information about those individuals’ potentially criminal conduct during the Northern Ireland conflict. Part 3 largely ends criminal investigations, prosecutions, civil actions, inquests and inquiries (except in specific circumstances). Part 4 provides for the compilation of histories of the Northern Ireland conflict.
Though the Bill’s provisions are complex, this post is not concerned primarily with those provisions. Instead, in addition to the Secretary of State’s statement (under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998) of compliance with Convention rights, the Bill is accompanied by (somewhat unusually) a 36-page ‘European Convention on Human Rights Memorandum‘, written by the Northern Ireland Office. This Memorandum provides the views of the UK Government on why the Bill is Convention-compliant and this is what will be explored here.
In the politically-charged and at times feverish aftermath of the Brexit referendum, Gina Miller became a “magnet for hatred” for exercising her right of access to courts and winning two landmark public law cases against the UK Government. The magnitude and ferocity of abuse directed at Gina Miller made those who followed in her footsteps wary enough to seek anonymity. In Yalland and others v Brexit Secretary, 4 claimants were granted anonymity in relation to a judicial review claim concerning UK participation in the European Economic Area Agreement.
Anonymity in Northern Ireland is not uncommon where some part of a claimant’s deeply personal life or history play a role in the determination of their claim. JR80 for example involved a claimant who had suffered egregious institutional abuse as a child, while JR123 involved a claimant with ancient convictions which disproportionately impacted his life.
In one of its final decisions of 2021, McQuillan, McGuigan and McKenna, the UK Supreme Court addressed challenges to the effectiveness of police investigations into events which took place during the Northern Ireland conflict. The European Court has long maintained that the right to life (Article 2 ECHR) and the prohibition upon torture and inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 ECHR) carry with them positive obligations on the state to conduct effective investigations. These “legacy” cases not only draw the Courts into debates over some of the most contentious aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict, in particular the involvement of state agents in killings and the infliction of serious harms upon individuals, but they also pose questions about how human rights law applied in the context of Northern Ireland as a jurisdiction before the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998.
For reasons of economy, this post will focus on the facts of the McGuigan and McKenna elements of this litigation, which concerned the ill-treatment of detainees who had been interned in the 1970s (while also exploring broader questions which concerned all elements in the litigation). The scope of this ill-treatment, involving the subjection of internees to the infamous “five techniques” (including hooding of detainees to disorient) as part of interrogations, has long been known. Indeed, the resultant case of Ireland v United Kingdom remains a key turning point in the development of the European Convention on Human Rights, demonstrating that the Strasbourg Court would be willing to uphold human rights claims against an important member state even as it sought to tackle political violence. In that decision, although the Court found that the five techniques breached Article 3 ECHR, it discussed them in terms of inhuman and degrading treatment and not torture. Releases of documents by the National Archives (highlighted in a 2014 RTÉ documentary), however, showed UK Cabinet Ministers discussing the extent of the interrogation practices when they were taking place, and led to calls for fresh police investigations into whether there has been a coverup.
What happens when someone is convicted of a criminal offence and is given a custodial sentence? Sometimes, the individual will serve at least part of their sentence in prison and the remainder on licence. But, what happens after they’ve served the totality of their sentence?
Readers of this blog may be familiar with the changes in disclosure duties for criminal convictions which came about as a result of the cases of Gallagher, P, G & W v Home Secretary  UKSC 3 (see Samuel March’s post on this topic). JR123 looks at another aspect of the framework of rehabilitation: the ability to be rehabilitated in law at all.
JR123 had been convicted of possession of a petrol bomb, arson, burglary and theft in 1980. Having been given multiple custodial sentences, he had been released from custody in 1982 and had served the remainder of his sentences on license. In the years which followed, JR123 had no further involvement with the criminal justice system. However, given the exceptions in the 1978 Order, his convictions could never be spent and thus he could never be rehabilitated. This was problematic on multiple fronts, particularly his employment prospects and personal life. Many things which we take for granted, for example applying for insurance, obtaining a mortgage, renting properties, and so on, become considerably difficult when having to disclose convictions which are almost 40 years old ().
Mr Justice Colton observed of JR123: “He finds the process of repeatedly having to disclose the convictions to be oppressive and shaming” ().
One of the most keenly-awaited judgments from the Northern Ireland High Court, Gallagher’s application  NIQB 85 is a roughly-300-paragraph deep-dive into some of the abiding legal controversies surrounding the Omagh bombing of 15 August 1998. The bombing, for which the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) later claimed responsibility, killed 29 men, women and children and 2 unborn children and injured many others. It continues to reverberate down the years as the deadliest single incident in the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Gallagher is a paradigm example of Convention rights at play. As such, it provides food for thought when considered against the scrutiny of both the Human Rights Act 1998 and Legacy litigation. This post sets out some of the main facts before analysing the main Convention-related arguments and the Court’s treatment of them.
First, this case did not determine who was to blame for the bombing. The issue was a challenge to a 2013 decision, by then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers MP, not to order an inquiry into the Omagh bombing. This was important was because of the series of investigations that had preceded the 2013 decision – and failed to answer lingering questions.
In Northern Ireland, the Troubles are not the only part of its troubled past and present. In March this year, the Stormont administration found itself mired in controversy over women’s reproductive rights and access to abortion services. In April, a fresh controversy arose: a legislative ban on so-called “gay conversion therapy”. On 18 March 2021, Ulster Unionist Party MLAs Doug Beattie and John Stewart tabled a private member’s motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly calling for a legislative ban on the practice. The motion was debated on 20 April, with one amendment ringfencing religious activities from the proposed ban, taking centre-stage.
To characterise the debate which followed as polarising would be to put it mildly. The Assembly Hansard for 20 April records angry, frustrated exchanges between MLAs who called for safeguarding the LGBTQ community from harmful practices (condemned by the UN Human Rights Council as creating “a significant risk of torture”) and MLAs who called for safeguarding the free exercise of religion.
In the event, the DUP amendment failed and the UUP motion was passed unamended by 59 votes to 24, providing Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA with a strong mandate to bring legislation to ban conversion therapy in Northern Ireland. However, that was not the end of the matter. In the immediate aftermath of the Assembly vote, the DUP signalled its intent to block legislation unless “robust protections for churches” were included. Eight days after the vote, the Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster MLA faced significant rebellion in the party against her leadership and announced her intention to resign both the leadership of the DUP and the First Ministership. The extent to which the motion to ban conversion therapy played a part in the rebellion against Foster remains a matter for debate, especially given concerns about the impact of the DUP’s political stance on the very recently enacted access to abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
As many around the world celebrated the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on 17 May, the events of the past month were a reminder of how different the story of LGBT equality was in Northern Ireland, compared to Great Britain.
Lawyers working on cases dealing with Northern Ireland’s troubled past know that this field of legal work develops slowly. Sometimes, however, developments occur at an unexpected and unwelcome speed. Such has been the case this week. From the collapse of a controversial trial to the reporting of a legislative “amnesty”, the legacy of the Troubles remains an indelible part of both judicial business and daily life.
The fatal shooting of Joe McCann (The Queen v Soldiers A & C)
Joe McCann had been a member of the Army Council of the Official IRA. In 1972, he was the Officer in Command, First Battalion of the Official IRA and in charge of the Markets area of Belfast. He was suspected to have been involved in the murders of two soldiers and the attempted murders of four police officers (among other serious incidents). In the afternoon of 15 April 1972, he was seen by a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police officer who alerted a nearby patrol of paratroopers which included soldiers A and C. The police officer tried and failed to arrest Joe McCann, who was running away from him and the paratroopers. The police officer shouted at him to halt but he kept running. There was then sudden gunfire from behind the police officer, where the paratroopers were standing. Joe McCann was struck by two or possibly three bullets and died quickly at the scene. No forensic analysis was undertaken to determine who had fired the fatal shot.
Abortion reform in Northern Ireland has had a fraught history, to say the least. Matters appeared to finally come to a head when in 2019, the UK Parliament enacted the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Act 2019 (2019 Act), which created a duty on the Secretary of State to implement abortion reform by following the report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CtteEDAW). Nearly two years and two statutory instruments later, Stormont finds itself mired in fresh controversy as long-term abortion facilities in Northern Ireland have yet to be commissioned. So the obvious question arises: what happened?
The route to legal change
At the outset, it should be remembered that when abortion reform was enacted in Great Britain in 1967, it was not extended to Northern Ireland – which was, at that time, the only devolved administration in the UK (with healthcare firmly devolved to Stormont). Nor was abortion reform extended to Northern Ireland when Direct Rule began in 1972. Until 2019, abortions were mostly illegal under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 25(1) of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945. The only exception to this sweeping regime was the so-called “Bourne exception”, derived from the summing up of evidence in the criminal case off in which Mr Justice Macnaghten had said that an abortion may be lawfully carried out “in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother”.
Re B’s application  NIQB 76 was a challenge to a decision to prosecute a soldier for offences going back to 1972. Part of the small but politically divisive cohort of prosecutions arising out of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Re B provides a classic example of how courts approach the issue of fairness in criminal prosecutions for historic offences.
“B” is a former soldier of the British Army who had been serving in Northern Ireland. On 31 July 1972, the Army launched “Operation Motorman” to clear so-called “no-go” areas in Belfast and Derry, which had become highly problematic and dangerous for security forces at the time.
In the early hours of 31 July 1972, B was part of a company of soldiers deployed in the Creggan Heights area of Derry. He was armed with a 7.62 x 51 mm calibre General Purpose Machine Gun. At around this time, three local people were also in the area: Thomas Hegarty, his brother Christopher Hegarty and their cousin Daniel Hegarty. At some time shortly after 4.15 am, there was a burst of machine gun fire. When it stopped, Daniel Hegarty lay dead on the street, having been shot twice in the head. He was 15 years old. Christopher Hegarty was also wounded in the shooting, but survived.
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