The Government is furious at being “blindsided” by reports that London plans to depart from previous agreements and prevent the prosecution of British soldiers accused of crimes during the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Senior sources in Dublin said there was no confirmation or denial from London regarding newspaper stories suggesting that such an amnesty was being proposed, which came on an election day in the UK.
“Nobody has confirmed it. We’ll see what’s in the queen’s speech,” said one source in Dublin, referring to next Tuesday’s speech which will set out the British government’s legislative agenda for the coming session of parliament.
One source described the development as a “kick in the teeth”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin warned that any “unilateral” move away from the Stormont House Agreement, which deals with legacy issues of the Troubles, would be a “breach of trust”.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Northern secretary Brandon Lewis met in Dublin on Wednesday, just hours before the reports emerged, and sources said that “legacy” issues were discussed.
Mr Coveney was sufficiently wary of British intentions on the legacy issues to warn the British – as he confirmed in a statement – against any unilateral action, but he said on Thursday night that there had been “no heads-up” from London.
British government sources denied that Dublin had been “blindsided” and said the Irish Government had been briefed that the queen’s speech would contain proposals on legacy issues.
However, they conceded that the leak of the proposals had caused problems in Dublin and Northern Ireland.
While Mr Lewis did not tell Mr Coveney the news was about to break in London during their meeting, sources said Mr Lewis phoned the Minister later when he became aware that the story was coming. Mr Coveney said this happened after the story became public.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald called on the Government to use all available diplomatic channels to exert pressure on the British government to “cease their unilateral action”.
Human rights lawyer Niall Murphy, of Belfast-based firm KRW Law, said any such proposals would be “unlawful” and an “abuse” of the peace process.
“When those who enforce the law create new law to protect themselves from their own law, there is no law,” he said.
A British government spokeswoman said that London wanted “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.”
She said that London remained “committed to working with the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland parties, and civil society, including victims groups, to find a way forward on this important issue”.
Mr Coveney on Thursday night strongly rejected the British approach.
“I have repeatedly warned the British government they should not move in this direction,” he said, adding that he shared “the frustration” of many people in Northern Ireland at the news.
In London, Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh condemned the failure to take account of victims’ concerns.
“I’ve met with families, and the many victims of the conflict as they shared heartbreaking stories of loss. Ministers gave them their word, and that should mean something. This major departure from the Stormont House Agreement, announced via late-night briefings without a hint of consultation, demonstrates an inexcusable disregard for victims,” she said.