The Irish government has said it is “deeply alarmed” by reported plans by the United Kingdom to unilaterally end historic prosecutions for crimes committed during a bloody, decades-long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported late on Wednesday that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is set to introduce legislation next week barring the prosecution of UK veterans who served in the province amid The Troubles, which were ended by a landmark 1998 peace agreement.
It will reportedly apply to paramilitaries, as well as UK troops, and prevent any individual being charged over incidents that occurred in Northern Ireland prior to the Good Friday Agreement being signed, except in cases involving war crimes, genocide or torture.
Dublin was quick to oppose the reported plan, with Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar saying on Thursday that ministers were “deeply alarmed” by the idea and would not support such a move.
“Anything like this would have to have the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland and is something that we would not support as a government because we stand with the victims. They have a right to justice,” Varadkar told the Irish parliament.
He added the reported plan would also breach a 2014 agreement between Dublin, London and the parties in Northern Ireland that sought to deal with legacy issues concerning The Troubles by establishing an independent investigation unit to re-examine all unsolved killings.
Varadkar’s comments were echoed on Thursday by Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who said Dublin opposed any “unilateral action on legacy”.
“Victims & NI [Northern Ireland] must be the priority, the only priority!” Coveney tweeted.
Overall, more than 3,600 people were killed in the fighting between mostly Catholic nationalists pushing for a united Ireland and mostly pro-UK Protestant unionists, or loyalists, and allegations over unresolved crimes still remain a contentious issue.
‘A cynical move’
A spokesperson for Johnson’s government told the AFP news agency it had “clear objectives” to address the legacy of The Troubles while delivering on the prime minister’s 2019 election commitments to veterans who served in Northern Ireland.
During the campaign, Johnson pledged to end “vexatious” prosecutions of British military personnel.
“We want to deal with the past in a way that helps society in Northern Ireland to look forward rather than back,” the spokesperson said.
They added it was “clear to all that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working for anyone”.
But Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, whose Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party heads up the devolved power-sharing government with their former pro-UK foes, said a ban on prosecutions would be “a cynical move that will put British forces beyond the law”.
The nationalist SDLP party also said they would strongly oppose any legislation.
A ban on prosecutions could add to tensions in the region, where young loyalists rioted in recent weeks, partly over post-Brexit trade barriers that they feel have cut them off from the rest of the UK.
Several proceedings are currently under way against British veterans who were deployed in Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday, a murder trial of two ex-British soldiers accused of shooting dead an Irish Republican Army commander collapsed over a lack of evidence.
A separate trial of a soldier accused of murdering 13 unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry/Londonderry in 1972, when British paratroopers opened fire on the group on what became known as “Bloody Sunday”, is ongoing.