The Government must “urgently” decide if it will challenge the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) over its controversial Troubles legacy legislation before a potential January 18th deadline, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Giving evidence to the Committee on the Implementation of the Belfast Agreement on Thursday, prominent Belfast human rights lawyer Pádraig Ó Muirigh said it was “imperative” the Irish Government take the interstate case.
The committee, which has previously written to the Taoiseach and the Government to put on record its backing for the case, agreed to write again to reiterate its support for such a move.
It is expected the Government will make a decision before the mid-January deadline.
Mr Ó Muirigh, who has been involved in a number of high-profile Troubles-era cases and represented families of the victims at the 2021 inquest into the Ballymurphy massacre, said in his view there were “very clear grounds for the Irish Government to take this case and, other than political reasons, I’m unsure for why they haven’t done it yet.
“I don’t see any reason why there should be any further delay, the Bill is now an Act, it’s very clear that this Act is in breach of the Good Friday Agreement [and] the European Convention on Human Rights, and I don’t think the Irish Government should await any Supreme Court decision on that or wait on the outcome of the current litigation.
“The time to act is now, and not only is that important legally but it will put considerable pressure, in my view, on the British government and, probably more likely, any incoming British government, that may provide some political cover for any incoming Labour administration to seriously consider keeping to their word ... to repeal this Act.”
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, which became law in September, replaces current methods of criminal and civil investigations and inquests with inquiries carried out by a new investigative body that has the power to offer conditional amnesties for perpetrators.
For families, the time limit for lodging an application at the ECHR is four months after a final ruling in a national court or from the passage of the Act.
A legal challenge to the legislation concluded at Belfast High Court last week, with a decision expected as soon as possible, but the case could go all the way to the UK Supreme Court.
The Irish Government has no role in the UK domestic courts, but under the second provision a deadline of January 18th – four months after the Legacy Act became law – may apply.
In a statement on Thursday, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said “detailed and comprehensive” legal advice which the Government had received from the Attorney General was an “essential contribution to our consideration of next steps.
“The initiation of an interstate case would be significant and would have to be done on solid legal grounds,” he said. “It is not a decision which could, or should, be taken lightly,” he said.
“The Government is fully aware of relevant timelines initiating a case and the need to make a timely decision on this matter,” the spokesman said, adding that the Government would “continue to be guided by the best interests of victims and their families.”
On Thursday the committee also heard from representatives of the victims and survivors group Relatives for Justice (RFJ), which also stressed the “urgency” of the Irish Government’s decision on an interstate case.
Outlining the impact the Legacy Act has had on victims and survivors of the Troubles, Mark Thompson from RFJ said the organisation had seen “a total increase in referrals for mental health support of 310 per cent, the total increase in suicidal ideation is 600 per cent, and waiting lists for counselling and psychotherapy went from six weeks to eight months.
“This is not a trend that’s unique to Relatives for Justice, but to all groups in the sector, and most people are citing the fact that hope has been taken away,” he said.
“The Ombudsman had 450-plus cases ... there was 1,100 civil actions launched in the court, there are a number of up to 40 inquests, applications of around 60 inquests for the Attorney General ... and 1,300-plus cases sitting with the PSNI’s LIB [Legacy Investigations Branch].
“The shutters have come down effectively in all of those, they’re finished, and that has left families in crisis, families retraumatised, and families describing it as a form of torture,” he said.