Family of dead para launch legal challenge to Northern Ireland legacy legislation | Northern Ireland

The mother and brother of a British army paratrooper shot dead by the IRA in 1991 have launched a legal challenge in the hope of having the new Northern Ireland legacy legislation declared incompatible with human rights law.

Martha and Andy Seaman, from east London, argue the bill enacted last week is a breach of the European convention on human rights because it halted an investigation by the police ombudsman into the notorious murder of Pte Tony Harrison, as well as other unsolved Troubles cases like it.

“It means that some of the most violent crimes ever committed on UK soil will go unsolved,” Andy Seaman said in an interview with the Guardian. “And the families of those victims have kind of been left to deal with that fact.”

Harrison, 21, was killed by two masked gunmen on 19 June 1991 as he watched the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with his fiancee in east Belfast. After answering the door, his girlfriend was told at gunpoint to stay silent and he was shot five times in the back.

The killers have never been caught. One man, Noel Thompson, a taxi driver, was convicted of conspiracy to murder in 1993 because he had driven Harrison to his girlfriend’s home and had communicated its location to the IRA.

Martha Seaman and son, Andy
Martha Seaman and son, Andy. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Another man, Martin McGartland – an informant for the police – said subsequently in the book 50 Dead Men Walking that he had acted as a getaway driver for the killers. He subsequently went into witness protection and was given a new identity.

“I feel very betrayed,” Martha Seaman said. “I feel that my family was just not counted for anything, considering Tony chose to go into the army.

“The people who ended his life, they’re being protected by the very people who Tony trusted with his life.”

Years later, the family finally made a fresh appeal for another investigation via their MP. Two investigators from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland flew over to meet the family and, in 2016, a case file was opened.

However, in repeated letters to the family thereafter, the ombudsman said that a lack of resources and other competing cases prevented a fresh investigation. The passage of the legacy bill into law last week has effectively halted the cases being pursued by the ombudsman’s historical investigations unit.

It is a decision that, Andy Seaman said, has “huge ramifications in terms of the wider human rights” of the UK as a whole. “It feels like a tester,” he added. “I think that they’re trying to push the envelope and see how much they can get away with.”

Last week the family notified Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, in writing that they intend to seek a declaration from the courts that the new law breaches the European convention on human rights.

British courts cannot strike down laws but they are able to make a “declaration of incompatibility”, and it is in theory incumbent on parliament to make the law consistent with human rights in response. Labour has said it would repeal the law if it wins the next election.

Controversial throughout its passage through parliament, the Northern Ireland legacy act was opposed by victims rights groups, Northern Ireland’s five main parties and the Irish government amid concerns that it left victims’ families abandoned.

Pushed through by the Conservatives in Westminster, its core purpose was to prevent prosecution of British army veterans for historical offences, although it was extended to all unresolved Troubles cases. However, only one former soldier has been convicted since the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

When it was passed last week, Heaton-Harris said the law would “deliver on our pledge to deliver better outcomes for those most affected by the Troubles, while helping society to look forward”. Existing police and other investigatory systems had been ineffective and “left far too many empty-handed”.

The legislation does establish an alternative for dealing with cases like Harrison’s, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, which can investigate historical cases at the request of victims families’, but has to offer perpetrators an amnesty if they are prepared to come forward.

Emma Norton, the Seaman family’s lawyer with the Centre for Military Justice, said in the letter to Heaton-Harris that the ICRIR was not a satisfactory alternative, partly because material provided under immunity cannot be used in any future criminal investigation.

It is also, she wrote, “not a specialist law enforcement and investigation body, its duty is merely to ‘look into’ the circumstances of death and produce a report”. Nor is it required to meet criminal justice standards or gather information exhaustively.

Martha and Andy Seaman are launching a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the government’s legal bills should they lose in court. But Martha Seaman, who is now 80, fears that she will now never find out who killed her son and what happened that night.

“It’s 32 years now since I’ve lost my son, and I don’t think I will see the end of it, because I’ve just celebrated my 80th year and I just feel I’ll never know the truth,” she said. “That’s what I want to know, the truth.”


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