Andy Seaman​ felt out of place when, on 26 May 2022, he walked into the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith. Andy has little connection to Ireland; he’s from East London and his family’s roots are in Dominica. But earlier that day he had heard on the radio that the centre was hosting an event run by the organisation Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma. He told me that he felt ‘compelled to go down there’.

In 1991, Andy’s older brother, Tony Harrison, a private in the Parachute Regiment stationed in Belfast, was shot dead by the IRA while off duty. For more than thirty years, Andy and his mother, Martha, have been waiting for the British state to properly investigate Tony’s murder. For most of that time they have felt completely alone in their endeavour. In May 2022, legislation was making its way through Parliament that made it more likely than ever that Tony’s killers would never be prosecuted. Andy felt that the memory of his brother had been dishonoured. He was desperate to find anyone who could help. ‘I walked into the Irish Cultural Centre not knowing what to expect,’ he told me. ‘They looked at me, like, “Are you in the right place?” – so I explained why I was there, and all about Tony.’

Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma is a public discussion forum dedicated to the conflict in Northern Ireland. It was founded by Michael O’Hare, who, as a young man in County Armagh, had seen the violence and disdain with which British soldiers could treat Catholic families such as his own. In 1976, a British paratrooper shot dead his 12-year-old sister, Majella. Like Andy, Michael was worried that the government’s new bill would prevent him from discovering exactly what had happened and bringing those responsible to justice. ‘Many might think we would be on opposite sides of this debate,’ Michael, Andy and Martha wrote in an open letter to Rishi Sunak later in 2022. ‘But we are not … It is hard to begin to express to you how devastated we are by these proposals.’

Sunak did not reply. In September last year, the Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act received royal assent. It ordered a halt to the existing means for dealing with crimes committed during the conflict in Northern Ireland between the late 1960s and 1998. Criminal investigations, inquests and complaints about police conduct were to be abandoned or wound up within a few months; no new civil claims for compensation would be allowed. On 1 May this year, outstanding cases were handed over to a new investigative body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR). Its team of investigators, who have police powers, will carry out ‘reviews’ of deaths and other forms of serious harm on behalf of victims and their families. But the Act offers alleged perpetrators of crimes – both former paramilitaries and members of the security forces – immunity from prosecution if they co-operate.

In the past, such arrangements have always been negotiated between the UK and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s political parties. The Troubles Legacy Act has been unilaterally imposed by the UK. Almost everyone hates it. Northern Ireland’s largest political parties all oppose it, though not for entirely the same reasons. The DUP calls it an ‘affront to justice’ that lets terrorists off the hook. Sinn Féin calls it ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘unjust’, arguing that the Act is intended to ‘conceal the truth and protect British state forces’. The cross-community Alliance Party calls it ‘unwanted, unworkable and contrary to European and international human rights standards’. The Irish government, the Council of Europe and members of the US Congress have all issued stern critiques. Keir Starmer has promised to repeal it if Labour wins the election, though what he would replace it with remains to be seen. At a meeting last year of the South East Fermanagh Foundation, a prominent Northern Irish victims’ group, David Hallawell, the son of a police officer killed by the IRA, said that ‘innocent victims and survivors have been betrayed and forgotten … for the sake of the government and votes on the mainland.’

The main point of contention is that the offer of conditional immunity is in effect an amnesty. According to the legislation, alleged perpetrators will avoid prosecution if they provide testimony that ‘is true to the best of [their] knowledge and belief’. Critics say this is far too vague and will allow those involved to repeat the inaccurate or incomplete statements they might have given at the time, or perhaps even gloat about their crimes without fear of repercussion. ‘The majority of people want truth and accountability,’ Grainne Teggart, a Northern Ireland campaigner at Amnesty International UK, told me. ‘The ICRIR is incapable of delivering it because the threshold is so low.’

The Act is already subject to a number of legal challenges. After dozens of victims and survivors lodged applications for judicial review, the Belfast High Court ruled in February that the Act breached human rights law, stating that there was no evidence the offer of conditional immunity ‘will in any way contribute to reconciliation’. Tony Harrison’s family have lodged their own application with the English courts. And in a rare case of one government suing another, Ireland has brought a case against the UK at the European Court of Human Rights.

The British government, for its part, insists that the Troubles Legacy Act is necessary and helpful. More than 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, hundreds of crimes remain unsolved, while hundreds more victims of serious human rights abuses continue to demand redress, explanation or apology from the groups or individuals they hold responsible. More than 3700 people were killed during the Troubles, 40,000 were injured and, according to one estimate, some 213,000 have lasting mental health problems. The slow, haphazard way in which the UK’s justice system has handled so-called legacy cases has compounded the pain of victims and exacerbated political divisions. There have been regular demands from victims’ families for some sort of truth commission, which could provide information, set events in proper historical context and foster reconciliation. This is what the government claims it has delivered, comparing its new system to the reconciliation process in South Africa.

Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister, said last October that the Act was needed ‘because the chances of justice are now vanishingly small’. Others argue that the existing measures, imperfect though they may have been, were working too well for the government’s liking. Most killings during the Troubles were the work of paramilitaries. According to the government’s own figures, around 60 per cent of deaths were caused by republican paramilitaries and 30 per cent by loyalists. (Republicans were responsible for about 40 per cent of civilian deaths and loyalists for close to 50 per cent.) The British state was directly responsible for the remaining 10 per cent of all deaths, the vast majority of which the government maintains were lawful. It’s the relatively small number of cases where the state is alleged – or has been proven – to be at fault that have caused the most controversy in Westminster. Some of these cases relate to the disproportionate use of force by individual soldiers. Others relate to the early years of the conflict when the British Army – deployed in 1969, ostensibly to maintain order between nationalist and unionist communities – decided to try to crush the IRA, applying counter-insurgency measures that echoed end-of-empire operations in Kenya and elsewhere. Some have emerged from the murky world of intelligence gathering, which expanded as the conflict settled into stalemate. Only a few months ago, Operation Kenova, a police investigation into the activities of ‘Stakeknife’, a high-ranking British informant in the IRA, found that his intelligence probably ‘resulted in more lives being lost than saved’.

In Westminster, the handful of veterans who have faced prosecution have been the focus of debate. For politicians on the right, their predicament is evidence of a witch hunt driven by ambulance-chasing lawyers and republican agitators. They bemoan the rise of what one Northern Ireland secretary called a ‘pernicious counter-narrative’ and what another described as a ‘rewriting of history’ that casts the British state as the villain in the conflict. Another part of the Troubles Legacy Act makes provisions for the ‘memorialisation’ of the conflict: alongside a project to consolidate existing oral history records, five academic historians will be granted access to UK state archives to produce what the government initially called an ‘official history’. (It has since been renamed a ‘public history’.) Each party to the conflict has its own interests to defend and its own actions to justify, but whether or not they fit into any one of the rival narratives, those caught up in the violence still have rights. It is the failure to meet those rights that has brought us to this point.

As of 2022, according to a freedom of information request submitted by the Centre for Military Justice, which is supporting Martha and Andy’s case, Tony’s murder was one of 1117 unsolved Troubles-related crimes on the books of the Legacy Investigation Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Shortly before the Troubles Legacy Act came into force last year, according to figures gathered by the Pat Finucane Centre, a Derry-based victims’ rights group, 46 inquests relating to 79 deaths were making their way through coroners’ courts. The Police Ombudsman’s office, which deals with complaints about police conduct, had 442 open files. And more than a thousand civil compensation claims had been lodged with the Ministry of Defence, the Northern Ireland Office and various state agencies, as well as a smattering of other groups.

Some recent cases relate to the most notorious incidents of the Troubles. In Belfast, for instance, a former paratrooper is currently on trial for two murders and five attempted murders related to Bloody Sunday. In London, survivors of IRA bombings in Docklands, at the Old Bailey and at Manchester’s Arndale Centre, are suing the former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams for damages. Survivors of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings – the deadliest loyalist attacks in the Republic of Ireland – are suing the British government for failing to prevent them. In April, an inquest into the 1976 Kingsmill massacre – in which the IRA ambushed and executed ten Protestant men – finally concluded after eight years.

Many other cases, including Tony’s, are less well known and have made less progress. Tony was killed in the summer of 1991. He had served two tours in Northern Ireland but was now off duty, visiting his fiancée. On the evening of 19 June, they were watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at her house in East Belfast when two masked gunmen knocked at the door and then forced their way inside. They shot Tony five times, killing him instantly.

An investigation was launched and in February 1993 Noel Thompson, a taxi driver who had driven Tony to the house a few days before his death, and admitted tipping off the IRA, was convicted of conspiracy to murder. ‘Obviously others were involved,’ a detective from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the forerunner to the PSNI, which replaced it in 2001) told an inquest that autumn. ‘Enquiries will continue as long as necessary in an effort to make them amenable for the murder.’

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to most of the violence of the Troubles with a political settlement that enabled nationalists and unionists to share power in Northern Ireland. It paved the way for paramilitaries to disarm, partly through an arrangement that would commute all prison sentences to a maximum of two years. But the agreement made little provision for dealing with unsolved crimes and unexplained deaths. Complex murder investigations become even more difficult with the passage of time. Inquests were perfunctory during the Troubles. Many were adjourned, or returned open verdicts.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which underpins the Good Friday Agreement and is written into UK law via the Human Rights Act, places an absolute duty on the state to protect the right to life. Where that right has not been met, the state is obliged to provide an ‘effective investigation’. That means an investigation which is prompt, independent and open to public scrutiny, and which has the power to hold those responsible for violations to account.

In the aftermath of armed conflict, conventional justice systems, which focus on individual culpability, are rarely sufficient. In an influential paper from 2006, ‘Making Peace with the Past’, Kieran McEvoy, now a professor of law and transitional justice at Queen’s University Belfast, wrote: ‘Put simply, an exclusive focus on naming the 18-year-old paramilitary who carries out a sectarian or racist murder obfuscates the role of the sectarian or racist demagogue who inspired him to take up an AK-47 or a machete in the first place.’ In Northern Ireland, polls have shown majority support for some form of truth commission that could address the conflict more broadly.

Agreeing on what that should look like has been much more difficult. A poll from 2004 found that 99 per cent of respondents trusted neither republicans nor loyalists to tell the truth, while 92 per cent didn’t trust the British state either. As Susan McKay describes in Bear in Mind These Dead (2008), nationalist and unionist communities have both at times brandished their grief at one another; in the mid-2000s, they held rival victims’ demonstrations in Belfast and Dublin respectively. Even agreeing on who should be considered a victim is difficult. The first serious attempt to set up a truth commission, in the late 2000s, foundered amid public anger at the proposal to pay compensation to every bereaved family – including families of those involved in paramilitary violence.

Unresolved cases​ leave families in limbo. Late last year I met Andy and Martha, a retired nurse who migrated from Dominica to London in 1962. The first thing Martha did was show me a photograph of Tony as a baby, which she took out of her Freedom Pass wallet. Martha is eighty; when Tony died she was in her forties. ‘We knew that Tony’s job came with certain risks,’ Andy told me. ‘We’re not naive. Had he been killed in the line of duty, it would have been heartbreaking and it would still have been a loss. But Tony was murdered on his girlfriend’s sofa, off duty, on a random summer evening in the middle of June. It’s a very important distinction to make in this case. If I did it, I would expect to be pursued, questioned and prosecuted in line with the law. But in Tony’s case this has not happened yet.’

In the early 2000s, a group of families took the UK to the European Court of Human Rights for failing to fully investigate the deaths of their relatives. The court found that their rights under Article 2 had been breached and ordered the British government to make improvements to the way it dealt with legacy cases. In response, the government set up a dedicated Historical Enquiries Team within the PSNI to review cold cases – and, where appropriate, launch new criminal investigations. Northern Ireland’s attorney general also reopened a series of inquests.

This piecemeal system – which also included the Police Ombudsman’s office, established in 2000 – made some progress. But its work was slow, under-resourced and unsystematic. In 2014, the Historical Enquiries Team was closed down. The PSNI was making major cuts and an investigation by the police inspectorate the previous year had found that the agency was failing to properly investigate state-linked killings. The Legacy Investigation Branch that replaced it was smaller and even less well resourced: in 2020, before the Troubles Legacy Act was passed, Chief Constable Simon Byrne claimed it would take twenty years to get through its outstanding caseload. Legacy inquests have dragged on for years, too, in part because government departments have been slow to disclose information requested by the courts.

In 2015, with the help of her local MP, Martha wrote to Penny Mordaunt, then the armed forces minister, to complain about the lack of an investigation into her son’s death. ‘I know that Private Harrison’s killers have never been brought to justice and this must be a cruel addition to Mrs Seaman’s grief,’ Mordaunt replied, adding that ‘efforts to bring murderers from that period to justice are still very much alive.’ Shortly afterwards, the family was visited by investigators from the Police Ombudsman’s office who said a case file had been opened to look into whether officers’ misconduct had hampered the original murder investigation. Since then, however, they have received nothing but a letter from the ombudsman’s office every six months apologising for the lack of progress. ‘It was all variations on a theme,’ Andy told me. ‘Lack of resources, lack of government funding, haven’t got the staff, haven’t got the time.’

Michael O’Hare’s family did make some progress through the system. A few weeks after I first met Andy and Martha, I visited Michael at his home in North-West London. He showed me a letter sent by the Ministry of Defence to his late mother, Mary, in 2011 and signed by the defence secretary at the time, Liam Fox. ‘I apologise for Majella’s death and offer you my heartfelt sympathy,’ it reads. ‘On behalf of the army and the government, I am profoundly sorry that this tragic incident should have happened.’

On 14 August 1976, Majella was walking to church in the village of Whitecross, County Armagh. Shortly after passing an army patrol, on a quiet country road, she was shot twice in the back by a machine gun. Her father, a school caretaker, was mowing the grass nearby. He ran to the scene to find his daughter dying in a pool of blood. ‘The soldiers were giving him abuse, shouting: “What do you think you are doing? You’re only the fucking grass-cutter,”’ Michael recalled in an interview in 2011. ‘Even after he found her on the road and cradled her in his arms they were abusive.’ One witness remembered Majella being thrown head-first, ‘like a piece of meat’, into the army helicopter that transported her to hospital. She was pronounced dead on arrival.

Soldiers deployed to Northern Ireland were authorised to use force only when faced with an immediate threat to life. Civilians were supposed to be warned to get out of the way. After witnesses came forward to say they had heard just one set of gunshots on the day Majella was killed, local RUC detectives launched a murder investigation. As was standard at the time, they were not allowed to interview soldiers directly, relying instead on written statements provided to them by the Royal Military Police. Despite this, detectives charged a member of the patrol, Private Michael Williams of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment, with murder. By the time of Williams’s trial, in 1977, the charge had been reduced to manslaughter. He was acquitted by a judge – sitting without a jury – who accepted his account that the patrol had come under fire from an IRA sniper and that Majella had been caught in the crossfire.

For more than thirty years, this was the official account. In 2010, however, the Historical Enquiries Team reviewed the case and found that there was no evidence of an IRA gunman at the scene and that the initial investigation had not been independent. The MoD’s letter of apology the following year acknowledged that Williams’s account had been ‘unlikely’. This was only the second time that the British government had formally apologised for the killing of a civilian during the Troubles. (The first was David Cameron’s apology for Bloody Sunday, following an inquiry launched by Tony Blair’s government in 1998.) Michael has mixed feelings about the letter. ‘It sounded all right at the time,’ he said. ‘If you read it, there are a couple of glowing apologies. But there are also lines that sort of say: “We’re sorry it happened – but we’re not.”’

As Michael sees it, the apology should have been the start of a process rather than the end. Why didn’t the army admit the truth in 1976? Why did it take so long to revisit the case? Could Williams be retried – or, just as important for Michael, could he be persuaded to talk to the family, to explain why he shot Majella? ‘I’m not bitter,’ he told me. ‘I just need to see Williams, if he’s still alive. See if he has any remorse, or any interest in making an effort to console people.’ The last time anyone in the family spoke to Williams was at his acquittal in 1977. When Majella’s mother asked Williams ‘Why did you do it?’, he ‘just shrugged his shoulders’, Michael said.

When it works, transitional justice – the legal means by which a society deals with conflict or serious human rights violations – can resolve some of these questions. It must strike a balance between holding individuals to account, without which families are unlikely to trust the process, and giving them an incentive to tell the truth. Kieran McEvoy told me that the best examples achieve what he calls ‘truth recovery with teeth’; that is, a commission would focus on retrieving information but also have the power to compel people to take part.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered amnesties to the perpetrators of violence during apartheid, but only on condition they gave full disclosure, to the satisfaction of independent judges. Colombia, which is emerging from a decades-long conflict between the state, right-wing paramilitaries and the left-wing guerrilla movement FARC, has developed – on paper, at least – what McEvoy calls the ‘gold standard’ in transitional justice. A special tribunal investigates and prosecutes the alleged perpetrators of crimes while a truth and reconciliation commission offers conditional amnesties to people who provide meaningful information. These measures have been accompanied by apologies from the main parties to the conflict and a commitment on the part of the Colombian state to address its economic and social causes.

In 2014, it seemed that a version of ‘truth recovery with teeth’ for the Troubles was at last within reach. The Stormont House Agreement – a deal between Northern Ireland’s main political parties and the British and Irish governments – proposed to replace the existing legacy system with a stronger, better-resourced historical investigations body, independent from the PSNI, but with the power to bring charges. At the same time, a commission dedicated to ‘information retrieval’ would allow families to privately request information from alleged perpetrators – about the location of a body, for example – in return for guarantees that it would not be used in prosecutions. An oral history archive would collect material from people across the UK and Ireland, to build a plural history of the conflict. What’s more, the British and Irish governments agreed to consider making ‘statements of acknowledgment’ – not quite apologies, but close – and ‘would expect others to do the same’.

The Stormont House Agreement was hailed as a breakthrough by many, including the British government, which called it a ‘genuine and significant step forward’. But it hasn’t been implemented. One reason is political deadlock in Northern Ireland: power-sharing collapsed in 2017 and has been revived only fitfully since. Lord Caine, a former Conservative special adviser who worked closely on the Stormont House negotiations, recently said that consensus ‘began to evaporate’ when it came to fleshing out the details. Nationalists didn’t like the British government’s insistence on a veto, for the purposes of national security, over any report produced by the new historical investigations body; unionists thought the Irish government should commit to investigate paramilitary attacks that were planned and launched from the Republic. Politicians in Westminster began to express unease about aspects of the deal, too, particularly as Northern Ireland’s public prosecutor began to bring cases against former British soldiers.

Few legacy cases of any sort have resulted in prosecution. Between January 2012 and May 2023, the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service brought prosecutions in nine cases related to republican paramilitaries, four related to loyalists, five to former soldiers and none to former police officers. To date, only one former British soldier has been convicted of a historical Troubles-related offence. (Between twenty and forty thousand paramilitaries passed through British prisons during the conflict.) But a wave of legal action against former soldiers over alleged human rights abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan showed what might be possible, and it unnerved many Conservatives. ‘We will never again in any future conflict let those activist left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave,’ Theresa May promised in October 2016, in her first Conference speech as prime minister.

In December 2016, the prosecution service announced it would try two former paratroopers for the murder of Joe McCann, an Official IRA member shot dead in Belfast in 1972. The backlash was swift. bloody outrage, the Sun fumed, claiming that a ‘newly created’ body would examine all killings by British troops in Northern Ireland and that ‘Republican-linked law firms’ had helped to open inquests into killings by the British Army. ‘Why are our soldiers facing a new witch hunt?’ the Daily Mail demanded. (The two former soldiers were acquitted in 2021, after a judge ruled evidence gathered by the Historical Enquiries Team inadmissible.)

As a handful of cases made their way to court, a vocal lobby at Westminster insisted that Northern Ireland veterans be included in the government’s emerging plans to protect soldiers who had served overseas from future legal action. Tory and DUP MPs, right-wing media outlets and veterans’ campaign groups argued that what they called ‘vexatious’ prosecutions were cruel and unfair. The case of Dennis Hutchings, a former member of the Life Guards who died aged eighty during his trial for murder, became a particular rallying point. In 1974, Hutchings shot and killed John Pat Cunningham, a 27-year-old man with severe learning difficulties, as he ran away from an army patrol. Johnny Mercer, the veterans’ affairs minister who led the campaign to protect former soldiers, described the passage of the Troubles Legacy Act last year as fulfilling a pledge he had made to Hutchings.

For others, the reputation of the British Army itself was on the line. More than 250,000 men and women served in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2007, the longest continuous military deployment in British history; 1441 of them died while deployed, of which 722 were killed in paramilitary attacks. ‘What we can’t allow … is the presumption that those deaths in which the military were involved were wrong,’ Lord Dannatt, a former chief of the general staff, told the BBC. ‘Soldiers did their duty, got up in the morning, sometimes they came under attack. They returned fire. They didn’t set out to murder people. Terrorists set out every morning to murder people and successfully did so. There is a huge distinction to be drawn.’

In public, the government remained committed to the Stormont House Agreement. But by 2019, senior Tories supported some form of amnesty for ex-soldiers. During that summer’s leadership election, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt both signed a ‘veterans’ pledge’ presented to them by the Sun. It promised, among other things, ‘new legislation to end repeated and vexatious investigations into historical allegations against our servicemen and women – including in Northern Ireland’.

For victims, this meant yet more delays. Michael O’Hare told me that he kept asking for his sister’s case to be reopened. In 2020, his solicitor wrote to the PSNI asking for a ‘prompt and independent’ investigation into Majella’s death; the PSNI said that the case was awaiting ‘future review’, but couldn’t say when that would take place. ‘It’s not going to bring Majella back,’ Michael said. ‘It’s not going to ease the pain of my mum and dad. It’s not going to ease the pain of the remaining members of our family. But it would be something. It would be an acknowledgment of what they did to us.’

In March 2020, in a marked departure from the Stormont House Agreement, Johnson’s government announced that it planned to end ‘the cycle of reinvestigations … that has failed victims and veterans for too long’. The announcement accompanied the introduction of the Overseas Operations Act, eventually passed in April 2021, which makes it harder to prosecute or sue soldiers for alleged war crimes committed overseas. At first, there were few details of what the announcement would mean in practice. But in July 2021, after pressure from the Irish government, the Northern Ireland Office published a command paper setting out its plans. The centrepiece of its new proposal was an unconditional amnesty for all Troubles-related crimes.

This wasn’t the first time a total amnesty had been considered. Sinn Féin came close to proposing something similar in 2012, according to The Long Game, a recent book by the journalist Aoife Moore, but it was dismissed by Gerry Adams on the grounds that the party would ‘be crucified by the victims’ groups’.* (Sinn Féin has described Moore’s claims as ‘inaccurate’ and ‘offensive’.) The government’s announcement was met with horror in Northern Ireland, where a large-scale public consultation in 2018 had broadly endorsed the principles of the Stormont House Agreement. A study by academics at Queen’s University Belfast and a local human rights organisation compared the command paper’s recommendation to amnesty laws passed in other countries and declared it to be even more sweeping than the Amnesty Law passed by Augusto Pinochet in 1978.

The​ announcement and subsequent outcry came just as Andy Seaman was wondering how to take his brother’s case forward. The Covid lockdowns had given him time to brood over Tony’s death, he told me. But it was a quite different subject – news coverage of the report into the death of Daniel Morgan, a private investigator murdered in South London in 1987 – that made him think it was worth trying for justice one more time. An inquiry into Morgan’s death found that corruption had prevented the Metropolitan Police from bringing his killers to justice. ‘I thought, other families have been able to hold parts of the state to account,’ Andy told me, ‘and I’d like the same for us.’ He contacted the Centre for Military Justice to ask if it would accept Tony’s case.

The government’s new policy threatened to disrupt Andy’s plans. The proposed amnesty was one worry – if it came to pass, Tony’s killers couldn’t be prosecuted – but so was the new ‘information recovery’ body, which was tasked with providing a report to every bereaved family. The plans were vague and, since the government wanted to abandon the threat of prosecution altogether, there would be no way to compel alleged perpetrators to take part or to assess the integrity of their contributions.

As much as they wanted to see Tony’s killers brought to justice, it was information that Martha and Andy craved. One question in particular plagued them: did the police know more than they were letting on? In 1992, the year after Tony’s murder, the BBC reported that a third IRA member had been involved in the killing as a getaway driver for the two gunmen and that the man had been a police informant. But the noises coming from ministers suggested they were more interested in protecting the reputation of the British state. ‘Specialist law firms who campaign on legacy issues, funded primarily by legal aid, have been able to peddle false hope and profit from the pain of those seeking answers about what happened to their loved ones,’ Brandon Lewis, then Northern Ireland secretary, wrote as he shepherded the bill through Parliament. ‘This feeds a pernicious and distorted view of the past, promoted and peddled by those with a vested interest in presenting the British state as the aggressor … We must halt the rewriting of history and set the events of the Troubles in their appropriate historical context.’

According to the Committee on the Administration of Justice, an independent human rights NGO based in Belfast, existing legacy measures were starting to produce new information. Historical investigations may not have led to many prosecutions, but the inquests, civil cases and Police Ombudsman’s reports were shaping into a version of Kieran McEvoy’s ‘truth recovery with teeth’. Unfortunately for the government, the CAJ noted, some of these cases were ‘identifying significant patterns of human rights violations’ on the part of the state.

Fresh inquests, for instance, have provided ‘historical clarification’. In 2021, a coroner found that ten civilians shot dead by the army in the West Belfast neighbourhood of Ballymurphy in August 1971 were not gunmen, as the army had claimed, but ‘entirely innocent’, correcting a smear on their reputations that had been allowed to stand for fifty years. These new inquests had allowed lawyers representing the next of kin to cross-examine witnesses and thoroughly test evidence provided by the British Army. Half a dozen other recent inquest verdicts on individual deaths at the hands of security forces have similarly exonerated the victims.

Civil litigation, meanwhile, has forced state bodies to disclose large volumes of information relating to their conduct during the Troubles. In March 2023, the Belfast High Court awarded £350,000 in compensation to the family of the late Liam Holden, who was wrongly convicted of murdering a soldier in 1973 and spent seventeen years in prison. (He was initially sentenced to death, the last time a death sentence was issued in the UK; it was commuted later.) In a narrative verdict running to more than sixty pages, the court accepted that the British Army had tortured Holden, including the use of waterboarding, to force his confession. In a separate case, in 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that the police had been wrong not to investigate the UK government’s authorisation of torture during the internment of suspected IRA members in 1971. The case, brought by a group known as the ‘hooded men’, centred on fourteen internees who were subjected to brutal interrogation techniques, including being thrown blindfold to the ground from low-flying helicopters.

The most politically sensitive area of information recovery relates to collusion: allegations that the security forces either allowed paramilitaries to commit crimes or helped them to do so. Army intelligence and RUC Special Branch both ran informants within loyalist and republican groups during the conflict, supported by MI5. Operation Kenova’s report on Stakeknife, the high-ranking British spy inside the IRA, described the rapid and chaotic expansion of these networks and the lack of oversight. This created what the report called ‘a cabal of Special Branch self-interest that was fiercely resistant to any form of scrutiny … based on claims about a paramount need for secrecy’. Information that intelligence officers wanted kept quiet was routinely marked with the phrase ‘slow waltz’.

The British government tried to put an end to stories of collusion with several inquiries into high-profile cases in the 1990s and 2000s, notably the murder of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, who was assassinated by loyalists in 1989. David Cameron apologised to Finucane’s widow in 2012 for ‘shocking levels of collusion’, after a report found that state agents had been involved in the killing and that RUC officers had proposed Finucane as a target. Since then, however, new investigations have continued to bring more information to light, suggesting that failures were more widespread than the state has been willing to admit.

Police Ombudsman investigations have exposed some of the knock-on effects of what a report from February 2022 called ‘collusive behaviours’ – for instance, the surveillance failings that allowed loyalists to smuggle military-grade weapons into Northern Ireland in 1987, fuelling a string of sectarian murders into the 1990s. Operation Kenova investigated 101 murders and abductions linked to the IRA’s internal security unit, nicknamed the ‘nutting squad’. The British double agent Stakeknife is widely believed to be Freddie Scappaticci, a high-ranking member of the unit who meted out terrible punishments to suspected informants. As the report published in March describes, a mistaken view among officials that Stakeknife was the ‘golden egg’ led them to overvalue the information he provided and turn a blind eye to murders that could have been prevented. A sister investigation, Operation Denton, is currently examining the activities of the Glenanne Gang, a loyalist network that carried out dozens of murders of Catholics during the 1970s, and which is alleged to have been responsible for the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Ian Livingstone, the officer leading the investigation, has already acknowledged that members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, a local Protestant-dominated army formation, and RUC officers were involved in the gang’s activities. Operation Denton is expected to publish a report that will ‘define the character, the nature and the extent of that collusion’ early next year.

Martha and Andy Seaman have always wondered if collusion played a part in the failure to convict Tony’s killers. In 1997, the alleged IRA getaway driver Martin McGartland published a memoir, Fifty Dead Men Walking, in which he admitted to having been an undercover agent working for RUC Special Branch; the book’s blurb claims that the information he passed on saved the lives of ‘at least fifty people’. McGartland writes that the month before Tony’s killing, he warned his RUC handlers that his unit had been ordered to find and assassinate a British soldier spotted living in East Belfast. He claims he heard nothing more about it from his handlers.

Fifty Dead Men Walking became a bestseller and was later made into a film starring Ben Kingsley. But in the absence of a proper investigation, Tony’s family have no way of verifying McGartland’s account. ‘That’s obviously a problem for us,’ Andy told me. ‘I’ve asked the Police Ombudsman how it could possibly be that the police know who killed my brother, according to this guy? … Nobody has come forward and said “That’s not true.” We don’t know who killed him. It’s just been radio silence, complete radio silence.’ In November last year, the Police Ombudsman began writing to families with outstanding complaints to say that because of the Troubles Legacy Act, it was no longer in a position to investigate their cases.

Michael was 25 when Majella was killed. ‘Who knows what Majella could have been? She was a promising pianist, a lovely individual,’ he told me. In 1980, he moved to London, sickened by the violence that had engulfed his home: South Armagh, which abuts the border drawn through Ireland in 1921, was part of a region known then as the ‘murder triangle’. London is where he raised a family and built a career – for many years, he was the manager at the Galtymore, a popular Irish dance hall in Cricklewood – but he always worried that his grief weighed heavily on his wife and children.

After he retired, Michael took a degree in Irish history at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, then, at the urging of one of his tutors, set up Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma. The group runs several public discussions a year; its most recent, in March, brought together two leading figures from the Gaelic Athletic Association and All-Ireland Rugby to talk about the contribution of sport to the peace process. For Michael, it has been important to create a space where people ‘displaced’ by the conflict can talk openly about events and their aftermath. ‘Truth is the healer here,’ he told me. ‘Because if it is denied then there is no reconciliation. You can’t be reconciled if you’re still thinking “Why did he say that?” or “Why are they telling that lie?” or whatever. It needs to be open and honest.’

By the time​ the Troubles Legacy Act became law, the government had made some concessions to critics. Notably, it dropped plans for a blanket amnesty in favour of conditional immunity. The ICRIR, which started operating in May, has received backing from some influential figures in Northern Ireland. Sir Declan Morgan, a former lord chief justice, is its first chair. But the commission has an uphill battle to win trust, he acknowledged in December, since victims ‘have been disappointed so many times in so many different ways’. He has promised to ensure that investigations will comply with human rights laws and to abide by any changes required by the courts. Peter Sheridan, who was the PSNI’s highest-ranking Catholic officer and is widely respected for his work on reconciliation (among other things, he organised the handshake between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth in 2012), will lead the investigation team.

These gestures don’t change the fact that families are being asked to give up a set of legal processes and put their trust in a new, untested system designed and imposed by one party to a multi-sided conflict. Kieran McEvoy told me that he thought the ICRIR’s credibility had been ‘holed below the waterline’ by the British government. The offer of conditional immunity wasn’t the only problem, he said. The commission’s independence – or at least the appearance of independence – was also a concern. In marked contrast with the Stormont House Agreement, it is the British government alone that decides which officials are appointed to the commission, and the British government will retain a national security veto over information gathered by the ICRIR, which it can apply without independent judicial oversight.

Independence matters, not least because the British state has a poor track record of disclosing information related to the Troubles. Jon Boutcher, the police officer originally in charge of Operation Kenova, told Parliament in 2020 that ‘a culture of secrecy prevails’ within the PSNI, the MoD and MI5. ‘They regard any examination of legacy as a criticism of them and [believe] that disclosure of information represents a threat to national security.’ In the Operation Kenova report published in March, Boutcher described several attempts to ‘undermine and discredit’ his team. On one occasion he was summoned to a meeting with two senior PSNI officers, who wrongly accused him of having broken the Official Secrets Act. On another occasion, in 2019, his team tried to hand over evidence to the public prosecutor only to be told by MI5 that the security clearance for the prosecutor’s office building had expired and the files couldn’t be delivered. (Despite taking seven years and costing nearly £40 million, Operation Kenova did not result in any prosecutions. Boutcher has since moved on to become chief constable of the PSNI itself.)

All parties to the conflict have their secrets. At last year’s inquest into the 1976 Kingsmill massacre, the coroner criticised representatives of the IRA and the ‘wider political republican movement’ for failing to assist proceedings. Loyalists have remained just as tight-lipped. But the British state is in the unique position of being both a participant in the conflict and the keeper of official memory. In his account of British state secrecy from 2016, The History Thieves, Ian Cobain quotes the former PSNI chief constable George Hamilton on the fear this generates among officials: ‘The IRA, the UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force] and the other players in this didn’t keep notes or minutes of meetings or records of decisions. We did. And I think all of that has left us somewhat exposed.’

Legal action against the Troubles Legacy Act began last autumn. In November, at Belfast High Court, I listened to barristers for four families challenge the Act (their claims had been selected as lead cases, representing a wider group of complaints). They argue that the legislation denies access to justice and is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The passage of the Act was described by one as a ‘secondary traumatisation’. Martina Dillon, whose husband, Seamus, was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in 1997, told the court that the perpetrators ‘can safely sleep at night knowing they will never be held accountable. I can never sleep.’ (Dillon told me before the hearing that bringing this case was ‘the only thing left I can do for my husband’.)

At the end of February, the claimants won a partial victory. The High Court ruled that the conditional immunity clause breached Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as Article 3 – the right to freedom from torture – and the Windsor Framework, the UK’s most recent agreement with the EU. But it also ruled that the ICRIR was sufficiently independent to carry out human rights-compliant investigations. Both parts of the decision are being appealed, by the government and the claimants respectively. A hearing is set for June, but there is likely to be a lengthy battle that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. The Irish government is still waiting for a hearing date for its case at the European Court of Human Rights and there may well be other challenges to come, not least the case brought by Tony Harrison’s family, which is awaiting a hearing. ‘If there are questions to be answered, then they should be answered in a legal way, not swept under the carpet,’ Michael said. ‘As long as I’m full of breath I’m going to keep asking questions,’ Andy told me. ‘It’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, but this is our experience. I’m at a point now where I’ll talk to whoever’s listening.’

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