Britain’s amnesty plans for Troubles-related killings condemned at North-South meeting

Taoiseach Micheál Martin says he has ‘huge difficulty’ with the proposal on prosecutions

Taoiseach Micheál Martin (L) and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar at the 26th plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council, which took place via video conference. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire

Britain’s plans for a de facto amnesty for all Troubles-related killings has been roundly condemned at a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC).

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he had “huge difficulty” with the proposal to ban prosecutions for such killings “irrespective of whether they were [by] a state actor or paramilitary organisations”.

Referring to recent uncovering of new evidence in the case of Tom Oliver, a Co Louth farmer shot to death by the IRA in 1991, Mr Martin said: "Are we seriously suggesting if the gardaí found the killers of Tom Oliver that they would not be prosecuted and subject to the law?"

“The same applies in respect of British soldiers who committed crimes against civilians, the same applies to collusion, no matter where it took place on the island,” he said.


The Fianna Fáil leader noted: "I think we always have to have a high standard in relation to the loss of life."

On the cross-party Stormont House Agreement signed in 2014, which lays out an agreed approach on dealing with legacy killings, Mr Martin said it was "time to get on with it".

The NSMC is a group established under the Belfast Agreement which includes representatives from both North and South governments.

Also speaking after the online NSMC meeting on Friday, Stormont First Minister Paul Givan said a "victim-centred approach" to these legacy issues with a focus on "truth and justice" was needed.

The DUP MLA said there had been "extensive focus" on British army atrocities during the Troubles when "over 90 per cent of all deaths in Northern Ireland were perpetrated by terrorist organisations".

Mr Givan said those responsible “need to be held to account”.

“Some of those fled across the Border . . . there are concerns about a failure to extradite in the past. The Irish Government has a role in answering those issues,” he said, adding that the families of some victims want “information from authorities in the South”.

Stormont Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill described the proposals by the British government as “absolutely outrageous”.

“They are based on a premise of vexatious claims against British state forces when we know that is a bogus argument,” the Sinn Féin deputy leader said.

“I can count on one hand the number of British state actors who have ever been prosecuted for a role in the conflict.

“But I can say almost 25,000 citizens here on the island of Ireland went to jail as a result of actions in the conflict.

“It is about dealing with the past in a way that allows families to get access to truth and justice. The way in which to do that was devised in the Stormont House Agreement.”

Northern Ireland protocol

Meanwhile, Mr Givan said a “window of opportunity” has opened to resolve issues with the Northern Ireland protocol over the coming weeks.

He urged "constructive engagement" between London and Brussels on the special post-Brexit trading arrangements for the North under the protocol, part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement.

“The Irish Government has a very important role in influencing how the European Union conducts its approach to addressing those issues,” he said.

UK recognition of what Mr Givan termed the “political, societal and economic harm” caused by the protocol and the EU’s suspension of legal action against the UK for alleged breaches of their international deal has created a space for agreement, he suggested.

“The DUP want to see progress over the coming months,” he said. “There is a window of opportunity for that to happen.”

Mr Martin said there “are issues in the protocol that we can work together to try to resolve”.

But despite calls from some unionists for the protocol to be scrapped, the Fianna Fáil leader signalled progress in this regard should be made within the existing arrangements.

“If the political will exists, I do believe that within the framework of the withdrawal agreement that the potential exists there to iron out and resolve issues that have arisen,” he said.

Mr Martin said there was “more work to be done” in relation to this issue and that the “Irish Government stands ready to be helpful” in ongoing talks.

Ms O’Neill said there was a desire among the North’s population generally as well as among businesses for “stability and clarity”.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader criticised what she said were the British government’s “continuous attempts” to “override a political agreement that they themselves signed up to”.

Brexit disruption

Also speaking after the NSMC meeting on Friday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar blamed Brexit for the disruption to trade between the North and Britain.

“Only a few years ago, for more than 20 years, we had free and unrestricted trade between Britain and Ireland — north, south, east, west — and the reason why we now have disrupted trade, not just between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but also between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, is because of Brexit, not because of the protocol,” he said.

The protocol is an “honouring of a commitment made by the UK government . . . to Irish people North and South that Brexit would not result in a hard Border on our shared island”, he added.

“Nobody in the Irish Government or the previous Irish government has ever wanted any barriers to trade, north, south, east, west, or between Britain and Northern Ireland.”

The Government will work with the Stormont Executive, the UK government and the EU to “find any way we can to minimise any negative impacts the protocol may have” on trade and the economy in the North, he said.

Mr Varadkar suggested then it would be time to move “on to the next stage, promoting and embracing the advantages that can arise from the protocol for business in Northern Ireland”.

“We have already seen a big increase in North-South trade, which I think has to be encouraged, going in both directions,” he added.

“I think there is huge potential for increased exports from Northern Ireland not just to Great Britain but also to [the] European Union as a consequence of the protocol.”