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.
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.
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.
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.
The Attorney General for Northern Ireland and the Department of Justice (appellants) v The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (respondent)  NICA 42 (29 June 2017) – read judgment
Although the accompanying image is not in any way intended to suggest that Northern Ireland’s law on abortion parallels the situation obtaining in Margaret Atwood’s fictional Gilead, the failure of the legislature and the courts to overhaul the criminal law to allow women access to termination is a bleak reflection of the times. The hopes that were raised by high court rulings from 2015 and 2016 that existing abortion laws breached a woman’s right to a private life under Article 8 have now been dashed.
Let me start with a much quoted proposition derived from Strasbourg law.
when a woman is pregnant her private life becomes closely connected with the developing foetus and her right to respect for her private life must be weighed against other competing rights and freedoms, including those of the unborn child.
Really? Does that mean a woman loses her autonomy, the minute she conceives? Does she become public property, subject to the morals and wishes of the majority? Apparently so, particularly when one reads the opinion of Weatherup LJ:
the restriction on termination of pregnancies pursues the legitimate aim of the protection of morals reflecting the views of the majority of the members of the last [Northern Ireland] Assembly on the protection of the unborn child.
R (o.t.a A and B) v. Department of Health  UKSC 41, 14 June 2017 – judgment here; previous post here.
Update: the government has announced its intention to make funding available for women travelling from Northern Ireland to have free termination services on the NHS in England (29 June 2017).
Was it unlawful for the Secretary of State for Health, who had power to make provisions for the functioning of the National Health Service in England, to have failed to make a provision which would have enabled women who were citizens of the UK, but who were usually resident in Northern Ireland, to undergo a termination of pregnancy under the NHS in England free of charge?
No, said the Supreme Court (Lord Wilson, who gave the lead judgment, and Lords Reed and Hughes, but with Lord Kerr and Lady Hale dissenting).
Background law and facts
The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is governed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Abortion is only lawful there if there is a threat of long term psychiatric or physical injury to the mother. As this is difficult to prove, a steady stream of women come from Northern Ireland to secure abortions, mostly from private clinics that charge a fee for the service as they are unable to obtain a termination free of charge under the English NHS. Continue reading →
In the new age of alternative facts, even Sean Spicer might struggle to spin Tuesday’s Supreme Court judgment as anything other than a comprehensive defeat for the government.
Yet, as my colleague Dominic Ruck Keene’s post alluded to, the ultimate political ramifications of Miller would have made the Article 50 process appreciably more turgid had the Justices accepted the various arguments relating to devolution.
McCord, Re Judicial Review  NIQB 85 (28 October 2016) – read judgment
A challenge to the legality of the UK’s departure proceedings from the EU has been rejected by the High Court in Northern Ireland. In a judgment which will be of considerable interest to the government defending a similar challenge in England, Maguire J concluded that the UK government does not require parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. This is, par excellence, an area for the exercise of the government’s treaty making powers under the Royal Prerogative.
This ruling was made in response to two separate challenges. One was brought by a group of politicians, including members of the Northern Ireland assembly, the other by Raymond McCord, a civil rights campaigner whose son was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in 1997. They argued that the 1997 peace deal (“the Good Friday Agreement”) gave Northern Ireland sovereignty over its constitutional future and therefore a veto over leaving the EU. Like the English challengers, they also argued that Article 50 could only be invoked after a vote in Parliament.
At centre stage in the English case is the means by which Article 50 TEU is to be triggered and the question of the displacement of prerogative executive power by statute. While this issue was also raised in the challenge before the Northern Ireland court, Maguire J also had before him a range of specifically Northern Irish constitutional provisions which were said to have a similar impact on the means of triggering Article 50. To avoid duplication of the central issues which the English court will deal with, this judgment concerned itself with the impact of Northern Ireland constitutional provisions in respect of notice under Article 50.
However, the judge had some clear views on the role of prerogative powers in the Brexit procedure, which, whilst respecting the outcome of the English proceedings, he did not hesitate to set out. Continue reading →
Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.
(Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī , 13th Century Persian Islamic scholar and poet)
These words were the last in the ruling by DJ McNally in the Belfast county court, acquitting Pastor McConnell of grossly offending Muslims in a sermon that had been delivered in church but also transmitted over the internet. The Pastor had declared from the pulpit the there were more and more Muslims “putting the Koran’s hatred of Christians and Jews alike into practice”, and the sermon had continued in a similar vein. Continue reading →
Does the publication of photographs of a child taken during a riot fall within the scope of Article 8 ECHR?
It depends, says a Supreme Court majority, specifically on whether there was a reasonable expectation of privacy. Either way, the Court in J38 agreed that whether or not the 14 year-old Appellant’s right to respect for private life was in play, the publication of police photographs of him was justified in the circumstances.
Mr Finucane, a Belfast solicitor who had represented a number of high profile IRA and INLA members including Bobby Sands, was murdered in front of his family by loyalist paramilitaries in one of the most notorious killings of the Troubles. His death was mired in controversy due to the collusion between the security forces and his killers. Mr Justice Stephens stated at the outset of his judgment that
It is hard to express in forceful enough terms the appropriate response to the murder, the collusion associated with it, the failure to prevent the murder and the obstruction of some of the investigations into it. Individually and collectively they were abominations which amounted to the most conspicuously bad, glaring and flagrant breach of the obligation of the state to protect the life of its citizen and to ensure the rule of law. There is and can be no attempt at justification.
J19 and Another v Facebook Ireland  NIQB 113 – read judgment
The High Court in Northern Ireland has chosen to depart from the “robust” Strasbourg approach to service providers and their liability for comments hosted on their sites. Such liability, said the judge, was not consonant with the EC Directive on E-Commerce.
This was an application on behalf of the defendant to vary and discharge orders of injunction dated 27 September 2013 made in the case of both plaintiffs. One of the injunctions restrained “the defendant from placing on its website photographs of the plaintiff, his name, address or any like personal details until further order.” These interim injunctions were awarded pursuant to writs issued by the plaintiffs for damages by reason of the publication of photographs, information and comments on the Facebook webpages entitled “Irish Blessings”, “Ardoyne under Siege” and “Irish Banter” on 11 September 2013 and on subsequent dates. Continue reading →
A decision of the Northern Ireland high court has highlighted the continued narrow definition of “standing”, or the right to bring a claim, under the Human Rights Act 1998.
An 8-year-old child applied to bring a claim, which included a challenge under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to life), to the decision by police to introduce tasers in Northern Ireland.
The European Court of Human Rights has dismissed an application brought against the police in Northern Ireland by a mother and her daughter who argued the police had failed to take sufficient action to protect them from loyalist riots on their route to primary school.
The court held that the police must be afforded a degree of discretion in taking operational decisions, and that in this case the police took all “reasonable steps” to protect the applicants.
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