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Troubles legacy legal case: Irish and UK governments may have to agree to disagree for now

Dispute will not aid relations between states but it is unlikely to worsen them as both sides seek to restore Stormont Assembly

The Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had already expressed his “profound regret” at the decision by the Irish Government to take an interstate case against Britain’s controversial Legacy Act at the European Court of Human Rights. On Monday morning, he emphasised it again.

In the letter to the Tánaiste Micheál Martin and issued by the British ambassador to Ireland, Paul Johnston, Heaton-Harris formally registered the UK’s opposition to the Irish decision by reiterating the points made in his public response to the announcement in December.

In both cases the Northern Secretary criticised the timing of Dublin’s decision – taken, depending on which version you read, at either a “sensitive” or “delicate” time politically for Northern Ireland given efforts to restore the Assembly and Executive – and expressed the UK’s disappointment that it had not engaged with the new legacy investigations body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).

He also called on the Irish Government to “urgently clarify” the number of Troubles prosecutions brought in Ireland post-1998.


All part of diplomatic choreography, up to a point; the Northern Secretary’s move is also evidence of the extent to which, politically, London is smarting over Dublin’s action and wants to make clear its discontent.

In so doing, it has also hit back; a strategically-timed briefing to PA on Sunday night ensured the letter led the Northern news cycle on Monday morning.

The initial, brief, response from the Tánaiste – beginning a five-day visit to Mexico and Colombia – was to confirm he was aware of the letter and that he would respond “in due course”.

Dublin has already made its position clear; its feeling is that it – and many others – have repeatedly raised concerns about the legislation, which were not listened to, and it had no alternative but to challenge it in the European Court of Human Rights.

As London has made equally clear, this is not its view. Behind its attack on the Irish Government’s approach to legacy is the conviction that, however imperfect, at the least the UK is doing something.

Criticism of Ireland’s approach is not new; victims and survivors group the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) has long made this argument, stating as recently as September that many victims of the Troubles in the South “feel second class citizens [compared] with their northern counterparts” and that the Irish state has “refused ... to fully embrace the problem and legacy of the Troubles.”

But this, for SEFF or anyone else aside from the UK government and veterans groups, does not equate to support for the Legacy Act; it is to state the obvious to point out that what another government is doing or not doing will not fly as an argument before the European Court of Human Rights.

This latest war of words aside, in the short term the two states may have to settle for agreeing to disagree; though it will not help Anglo-Irish relations, it is unlikely to worsen them further, with both sides understood to be keen not to let it spill over and disrupt efforts to restore Stormont.

But, with a judgment expected shortly on a legal challenge to the Legacy Act taken in the High Court in Belfast, do not expect this diplomatic row to go away any time soon.

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