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Prosecutions linked to Troubles crimes should be shelved, says Michael McDowell

Irish Times columnist and former attorney general and minister for justice dismissive of Sinn Féin calls for historical investigations

Prosecutions for crimes carried out during the Troubles, including murders and bombings, should be formally abandoned by the Irish and British governments, according to former attorney general Michael McDowell.

He was speaking after a significant row broke out between Dublin and London over the latter’s plans to end prosecutions and inquests if those involved in crimes co-operate with a new commission.

On Wednesday, the Government announced that it would take only the second action to date against the United Kingdom before the European Court of Human Rights over its legacy plans, arguing that the legislation breaches right-to-life rules under the convention.

Responding to the Government’s action, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris emphasised a 2014 declaration by Mr McDowell that Dublin had decided not to investigate Troubles cases. “The Irish Government should urgently clarify the number of criminal prosecutions brought in Ireland since 1998 relating to Troubles cases,” he said.


Questioned on Thursday about the NI Secretary’s decision to highlight the lack of court cases in the Republic, Mr McDowell said: “The British are bound to point that out”

However, the Government is “entitled to be outraged” because the British government under former prime minister Boris Johnson “tore up” the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which pledged to continue with criminal investigations and inquests.

“But, equally, they cannot escape the facts. Every crime in the North, every killing, every shooting, every bombing is a crime in the Republic under the Criminal Jurisdiction Act. We have not investigated any of that,” he said.

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Rejecting Sinn Fein’s criticism of the British government’s decision to press ahead with the legacy legislation despite the opposition of all Northern parties, he said: “When I hear [them] demanding full historical investigations, it is a lie, it is a massive lie.

“The Shinners were demanding prosecutions [of British soldiers for Troubles-era offences] at the same time as they were demanding that the Irish State give on-the-runs free passes,” said Mr McDowell who was attorney general between 1999 and 2002 and minister of justice from 2002 to 2007.

Both governments should follow the lead of the Free State government in 1923-24 when it granted an indemnity for all acts committed by both State and irregular forces, he argued. “The Provos are never going to tell the truth. MI5 is never going to tell the truth. I really think they would be better off drawing the conclusion that the Free State did. We are not going to be able to seek criminal accountability. History is inconvenient, sometimes.”

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Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times