Ex-lord chief justice of Northern Ireland appointed to chair truth recovery body

Former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan has been chosen to chair the truth recovery body which the British Government hopes will deal with Northern Ireland’s past.

The body forms a key part of the British Government’s legacy Bill, which is passing through Parliament despite strong opposition from Northern Ireland’s political parties, the Irish government, victims’ groups and Amnesty International.

The Bill offers a form of amnesty for perpetrators of crimes committed during the Troubles by stopping future court processes in exchange for co-operation with the truth recovery commission.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill has already passed through the House of Commons and is currently at its final committee sitting in the House of Lords.

It will then proceed to report stage.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris said on Wednesday that some “game-changing” amendments to the Bill are to be tabled, and told MPs there had been “a journey to improve the legacy Bill dramatically”.

Amnesty has said the Bill cannot be amended to the satisfaction of victims’ groups and has called for it to be withdrawn entirely.

Patricia Burns, whose father was killed by the British Army in 1972, said the Bill needs to be “completely scrapped”.

She said: “The Bill is not victim-centred, it’s not taking into consideration the victims or their families,” she said while speaking at a protest against the legacy Bill.

“It is just to cover up crimes that were committed over the years in Belfast and Northern Ireland and the rest of the world.”

Ms Burns said of the Stormont parties’ reaction to the Bill: “The only thing I can say is all the parties seem to be against it. I don’t know any party who has seemed to push for it.

“So if all the political parties don’t want it, victims’ families don’t want it, why is it still going ahead? Who is going to benefit from it?”

Announcing Sir Declan as the chief commissioner of the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), Mr Heaton-Harris said he would help build public confidence in the body.

“Sir Declan brings a wealth of experience from his previous role as former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland from 2009-2021,” the minister said.

“A hallmark of his distinguished career has been his commitment to addressing Northern Ireland’s past.

“I am confident that he will bring the highest level of experience, expertise and integrity to this post which will help build public confidence in the ICRIR.”

Sir Declan said he recognises the importance of the role.

“My experience of the current system of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past means that I know we need to try to do things differently.

“I know that trust and confidence in the system that serves the people is vital. Our society deserves to move forward and embrace a shared future.

“The importance of reconciliation is known by all those who have been impacted by the Troubles and its legacy. For each and every person that will mean something different.

“I want to engage with all those affected so that the new Commission can be designed in the way that best serves their and Northern Ireland society’s needs.”

The appointment will take effect when the ICRIR is established, after the legacy Bill is approved by Parliament and receives royal assent.

Sir Declan is to identify other commissioners and to consider how the new commission will operate.

He will also lead the process to recruit a commissioner for investigations, a role that is currently advertised.

Sir Declan became a Queen’s Counsel in 1993, and served as a senior crown counsel for Northern Ireland between 2002 and 2004.

In 2004, he was appointed a judge of the High Court and knighted, and in July 2009 he succeeded Sir Brian Kerr as lord chief justice of Northern Ireland.

Sir Declan retired in July 2021.