Gardaí will be permitted to give evidence at Troubles era inquests in Northern Ireland after urgent legislation was passed by the Oireachtas.
The Criminal Justice International Cooperation Bill was rushed through the Dáil and Seanad this week to legally underpin Government commitments in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement on the North.
Drafting of the legislation began after the Attorney General advised in relation to the inquest into the IRA killing of 10 people at Kingsmill, Co Armagh in 1976, that current laws did not give gardaí a legal basis for the sharing of information with civil organisations outside the State.
The coroner in Northern Ireland had requested that gardaí give evidence at the Kingsmill inquest and the inquest into the murder of teenager Arlene Arkinson from Castlederg, Co Tyrone who vanished after a night out in Co Donegal in 1994. She was last seen being driven down a country road by Robert Howard, a convicted paedophile. Her body has never been found.
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan who as then minister for foreign affairs was involved in negotiating the Stormont House Agreement, said it established a "comprehensive framework for dealing with the corrosive legacy of the past".
This included a dedicated historical investigations unit to examine Troubles related deaths. The Minister said cooperation with the inquest process was an important issue to be addressed in the context of political development in the North.
The Bill will also allow the Garda Commissioner to enter into co-operation agreements with non-police and non-law enforcement bodies with the prior approval of the Government.
Fianna Fail Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee said the historical investigations unit has been due to be established since 2014 and "we must get on with it".
She said the PSNI has listed approximately 1,188 killings as legacy investigations and it was important that they be examined, that “families get answers and communities be given the opportunity to heal”.
In the Dáil the party’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan said outside help would be needed to deal with legacy killings.
Citing the Kingsmill and Ballymurphy massacres he said both events merit investigation and there should not be a hierarchy of victims.
He said “the people on this island and in Britain are not capable of considering these tragic and brutal murders objectively”.
Agreements on legacy deaths were made in the Weston Park Agreement in 2001 and again in the Stormont House Agreement in 2014.
Mr O’Callaghan said that “unless an international forum comprising outsiders who can examine these matters objectively is established, we will continue to move from the Weston Park agreement to the Stormont House Agreement and on to the various other agreements”.
Sinn Féin Senator Niall O Donnghaile agreed and said his party had long called for an international truth and reconciliation commission."
But in the absence of that kind of process, the Stormont House agreement was the “best road map” and it was past time that it was implemented. “This is a step towards that and more is required of us but also from the British government in particular.”
An amendment in the Dail by Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan seeking a reciprocal arrangement on information with the North and British authorities was defeated. She said there were 121 conflict related deaths in the State including the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and while they could not legislate for another jurisdiction “the information cannot flow in one direction”.
The Minister said he understood the frustration about the lack of response on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings but he said it would be “unwise to give any vent to the possibility that there may be a hierarchy of victims”, even though that was not her intention.