Any unilateral UK move on soldier amnesty a ‘breach of trust’, Taoiseach says

Simon Coveney says Brandon Lewis gave no indication of plans during meeting

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar says that the Government is "deeply alarmed" at reports that the UK government plans to give an amnesty to British soldiers accused of crimes during the Northern Ireland Troubles. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

The Taoiseach has said any unilateral move from the Stormont House agreement would be a “breach of trust”.

He was responding to reports that the UK government plans to give an amnesty to British soldiers accused of crimes during the Northern Ireland Troubles.

If the move proceeds as reported, it would be a violation of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement involving the Northern parties and the Irish and British governments.

Micheál Martin said on Thursday. “for us the victims are a priority”.

Politicians on both sides of the Border have condemned reports of plans which were leaked to British newspapers Wednesday night .

It would involve a statute of limitations so that prosecutions for crimes committed up to the Belfast Agreement in 1998 are prevented – except for cases involving war crimes, genocide or torture.

The plans were reported as preventing the prosecution of British army veterans of the conflict, but some reports said they would apply to all sides in the conflict, including IRA members.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One news, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis did not give him any indication of the plans when they met on Wednesday.

He also said he was “frustrated” to read the newspaper reports and victims “deserved better”.

“We did not get a heads up that this was going to be briefed to the British media yesterday evening.

“Obviously, I had contact after we saw those reports, with the secretary of state, and he said he wasn’t responsible for that.

“We had a long conversation yesterday, we had a 90-minute meeting, it was a very good meeting actually, we discussed a lot of things, including the legacy of the past, which is about the most sensitive political issue in Northern Ireland for so many people, in particular for victims and their families.”

Mr Coveney said the British government had been talking about the need to move away from some of the structures associated with the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

“That has always been on the basis of consultation and discussion with parties, in between both governments, what we saw briefed to British newspapers yesterday evening is a different thing.

“It’s essentially a suggestion that the British government would act unilaterally to legislate, to prevent prosecutions, or the possibility of prosecutions happening, related to the Troubles.”

Mr Coveney added that he had “repeatedly warned” the British government to not move in this direction. “I don’t believe anything equivalent to an amnesty should be pursued.”

Earlier, in the Dáil, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the Government would not support any amnesty or statute of limitations on offences that occurred during the Troubles because “we stand with the victims” and their families.

He said the Government and he personally were “deeply alarmed” by reports about the possibility that the British government may consider this action. Such a move would fly in the face of the Stormont House Agreement and of the New Decade, New Approach Agreement, he said.

“Anything like this would have to have the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland and is something that we would not support as a Government because we stand with the victims, the families who’ve been bereaved and damaged as a a consequence of these actions.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has claimed that her party has not at any stage called for amnesty for anyone.

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s News at One, Ms McDonald called on the Irish Government to use all available diplomatic channels across Europe and internationally but particularly in the United States, to exert maximum pressure on the British state “to come in line, to cease their unilateral action, but not just that, but to actually get back to Stormont House, get back to what we agreed, to demonstrate some level of respect and some level of humility for the absolute nightmare that they have caused and sustained for countless families.”

Ms McDonald denied that any stage had her party argued for an amnesty “for anyone.”

“The British action now has nothing to do with Republican prisoners and has everything to do with British soldiers.

“What the British here are proposing is not to give any level of comfort to members of the IRA or any group, this is about their boys, it’s about their soldiers.

Ms McDonald acknowledged that so-called ‘letters of comfort’ had been issued to IRA prisoners. This was under the peace agreement and was for prisoners who were in prison serving sentences, she explained.

The issue of how to deal with the past was “a long running sore”. The Stormont Agreement was an internationally binding agreement, she said and the Government now had to be forceful in its engagement with the British government, she said.

“The British state has consistently acted in this way and it’s time to draw a line under it.”

Responding to the development, Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “Reports that British government are to legislate for an amnesty for their state forces is another slap in the face to victims.

“Another cynical move that will put British forces beyond the law. This is legal protection for those involved in state murder. This is not acceptable.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has described the proposed amnesty as the biggest betrayal of victims by a UK government.

It was very difficult for anyone to have faith in the UK government as they were the “most cynical and untrustworthy” UK government “we have seen in many years.”

Mr Eastwood told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that he and his party had been worried about this possibility for some time. The UK government had acted unilaterally by briefing the “Tory press” on the eve of an election without informing the Irish Government. “It is an absolute disgrace and a real betrayal of victims.”

“This government does not care. It is prepared to ride rough-shod over people.” Reconciliation would be difficult if the government continued to “act like this.”

Mr Eastwood said he believed every victim was entitled to seek access to truth and justice and they were also entitled to seek information on the death of their loved ones.

The glorification of violence was not good, he added. “Our society is sick. The government’s action had left people hurt. Announcing such a decision on the night before an election was not the way to do it.

“It is very difficult for any of us to have faith in the government.”

Alliance Party leader and Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long tweeted: “This kind of briefing, before any meaningful engagement with victims’ families, typifies the contempt with which Govt are treating victims.

“I believe that they deserve justice where that is possible: however, at the very least, they deserve not to learn of Govt plans on Twitter.”

Responding to reports that a statute of limitations is to be introduced, a UK Government spokesman said: “The Government has clear objectives for addressing the legacy of the Troubles and delivering its manifesto commitments to veterans who served in Northern Ireland.

“We want to deal with the past in a way that helps society in Northern Ireland to look forward rather than back.

“It is clear to all that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working for anyone, failing to bring satisfactory outcomes for families, placing a heavy burden on the criminal justice system, and leaving society in Northern Ireland hamstrung by its past.”

Many victims of the Troubles are vehemently opposed to any statute of limitations, which they characterise as an amnesty that will thwart their chances of justice.

Human rights organisation the Pat Finucane Centre and Justice for the Forgotten (JFF) – a group representing survivors and relatives of the victims of the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan issued a joint statement.

They said the plans as reported “would display utter contempt for all victims and survivors, the Irish Government and, by extension, the Irish people.”

The statement said it would: “effectively mean that the British government is unilaterally tearing up the Stormont House Agreement, brokered and agreed in 2014 by the five main parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly together with the British and Irish governments, and which includes a binding international agreement between the two governments.”

It added: “On the question of amnesties, families have different views but our bottom line is that investigations into legacy cases must be article 2 compliant, which means investigations must take place that are independent, effective, timely, open to public scrutiny and should involve families.”

“We will be unable to make a final judgment until we see the small print,” the organisations said.

The British government last year said it would not order a public inquiry into the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989.

The reported move by the UK government, some detail of which could be announced in next week’s queen’s speech opening the next session of parliament, would signal the scrapping of a key mechanism agreed by the UK and Irish Governments and main Northern Ireland parties in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. The Stormont House proposals included a new independent investigation unit to re-examine all unsolved killings.

On Tuesday, the trial of two former paratroopers accused of the murder of Official IRA commander Joe McCann in 1972 collapsed due to legal issues related to the admissibility of statements and interviews given by the ex-soldiers. –Additional reporting PA