‘Who actually runs this damn country?’: UK reacts to State’s challenge of Troubles legacy Bill

Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris accuses Government of being ‘misguided’ in taking case to European Court of Human Rights

A British right-wing newspaper was the only London daily to devote its front page to UK government “outrage” at Ireland’s legal challenge over a controversial Westminster law dealing with the Troubles.

The Daily Telegraph article features reaction from Marc Francois, chair of a hardline group of Conservative MPs, to the Irish Government’s announcement that it is taking an interstate case against the UK in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) following the passing of its Legacy Act in September.

“Who actually runs this damn country? Is it the democratically elected [UK] government, chosen from parliament or an unelected, unaccountable foreign court?” Mr Francois, who heads up the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), said.

A high-profile campaigner for the law, which offers a conditional amnesty for perpetrators of Troubles-related crimes, the Conservative MP for Rayleigh and Wickford said the Bill had been “exhaustively debated” in the UK parliament for a year and “cannot possibly be allowed to be overturned by an appeal to an activist foreign court”.


Former conservative minister Jonathan Gullis said he hoped the challenge would be “immediately rejected”.

“If not, this only goes to show why we, the UK, must withdraw from the ECHR to stop foreign courts meddling in our legislation,” he added.

On Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the Government had been left with “no option” but to take the case following “strong” legal advice that the legislation breached the UN Convention on Human Rights.

The intervention was widely welcomed by victims, survivors and campaigners in Northern Ireland as well as nationalist political parties.

Former British soldiers and ex-paramilitaries involved in murders during the North’s 30-year conflict will be among those offered immunity from prosecution if they co-operate with a new ‘information recovery’ body.

Inquests into deaths linked to the 30 year conflict will also end under the Legacy Act.

The Daily Telegraph coverage includes criticism of the Irish Government by the former head of the British army, gen lord Dannatt: “This legacy Bill was passed by the authority of the Westminster parliament and covers Britain and Northern Ireland and it is a matter for our government to pass legislation. I am fully aware that the Irish Government and the US government don’t like it. We can listen to their concerns but it is not for them to take the UK government to the ECHR.”

On Wednesday evening, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) released a lengthy and strongly-worded statement from Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris in which he accused the Government of being “misguided” and said the case came at a “particularly sensitive time in Northern Ireland” amid ongoing negotiations to break the political deadlock.

Warnings about the “consequences” for British-Irish relations in the wake of the legal challenge were made by Northern Officer minister, lord Jonathan Caine, who said he “deeply regretted” the decision.

“Of course we highly value the relationship with the Irish Government – it’s a hugely important bilateral relationship for us,” he told the BBC on Thursday.

“Can I rule out any consequences? The answer is no.”

Separately, the UK body established to investigate Troubles-related killings under the new law has called for clarity to be provided by the courts in light of the case.

The Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) is headed up by Northern Ireland’s former Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan.

An ICRIR spokesperson said the body has “committed to following the European Convention on Human Rights and it is important that clarity in the legislation is provided by the courts”.

“In any process, it is important that prompt, independent and thorough investigations are carried out for families, victims and survivors and that is what the commission is seeking to deliver.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times