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Tánaiste Micheál Martin said the decision was taken after "much thought and careful consideration". Alamy Stock Photo
going to court

Irish government to take legal challenge against the UK over controversial Northern Ireland Legacy Act

The act includes a form of limited immunity for some perpetrators of crimes committed during the Troubles.

LAST UPDATE | 20 Dec 2023

IRELAND HAS DECIDED to initiate an inter-State case against the UK under the European Convention on Human Rights over the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023.

The act, which the state has previously voiced concern over to the United Kingdom, includes a form of limited immunity for some perpetrators of crimes committed during the conflict and would also prevent future civil cases and inquests into Troubles offences.

The decision, made by government today, was confirmed by Tánaiste Micheál Martin this afternoon.

In a statement Martin said: “This decision was taken after much thought and careful consideration. I regret that we find ourselves in a position where such a choice had to be made.

The Tánaiste said the decision by the British Government not to proceed with the 2014 Stormont House Agreement and instead pursue with the legislation, without consulting or engaging with “legitimate concerns” from the Republic of Ireland and others first, “left us with few options”.

“The British Government removed the political option, and has left us only this legal avenue,” he added.

In September, victims campaigner Raymond McCord also launched a legal challenge against the act at the High Court in Belfast.

McCord said he was seeking a judicial review of the act, arguing it is a breach of his human rights under the European Convention, relying on the same argument that the legislation is in breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

On the same day, victims and their families told The Journal that they found the legislation “disturbing” and “upsetting” and were fearful that justice will not be served.

Also in September, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also appealed to the British Government not to enact Troubles Legacy Bill. At the time, the government were mulling over the decision to take legal action against the UK.

Last month, Micheál Martin – who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs – renewed the status of this decision, adding that Ireland was giving “serious consideration” to the idea that it would take legal action.

Today, it has been decided that the government will move forward will legal action.

Speaking on the decision today, the Tánaiste said: “The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law is a specific and fundamental requirement of the Good Friday Agreement. Since the UK legislation was first tabled, the Government have been consistent that it is not compatible with the Convention.

“I used every opportunity to make my concerns known, and urged the British Government to pause this legislation.”

Martin said he personally has “consistently adopted” a victims-centred approach to the issue and that the state are “not alone” in their concerns.

Victims’ rights advocates in Ireland and the UK, politicians in both jurisdictions and the US President Joe Biden have all voiced concerns over the bill.

“Serious reservations about this legislation have also been raised by a number of international observers, including the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,” he said.

“Most importantly, this legislation is opposed by people in Northern Ireland, especially the victims and families who will be most directly impacted by this Act.

“In particular, we have concerns around provisions which allow for the granting of immunity, and which shut down existing avenues to truth and justice for historic cases, including inquests, police investigations, Police Ombudsman investigations, and civil actions.

Earlier this year, the UK House of Lords supported an amendment setting out conditions for legal immunity as part of reconciliation efforts, including consent from the families of victims.

But British MPs later voted 288 to 205 – a majority of 83 – to reject this amendment. The legislation received a royal assent and became law later in September.

Martin said: “Even in cases in which immunity is not granted, ‘reviews’ by the proposed body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) are not an adequate substitute for police investigations, carried out independently, adequately, and with sufficient participation of next of kin.”

“The British Government enacted this legislation on 18 September 2023, shutting off any possibility of political resolution,” Martin added

“We now find ourselves in a space where our only recourse is to pursue a legal path. It is important to leave the next steps to the Court.”

‘A genuine sense of regret’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar today said that the decision to take legal action on the United Kingdom’s legislation is “something we’re doing with a genuine sense of regret”.

Speaking to reporters in Dublin, Varadkar said: “We’d prefer not to be in this position. But we did make a commitment to survivors in Northern Ireland and to the families and victims, that we would stand by them. respect their wishes and also stand by the Good Friday agreements, which specifically references the European Convention of Human Rights.”

Varadkar added: “The UK government’s decided  for their own reasons – and of course, they have the right to do that – to go down a different path, which was the UK legacy legislation, which is now law, but we don’t agree with that.”

“We think what was agreed by parties in Northern Ireland, the two governments, is the better approach.

“And we think at this stage, we really have no option but to ask the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to carry out a judicial review of this legislation,” he added.

The SDLP were first to react to the announcement this afternoon, welcoming the decision by the Irish government.

SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood MP said: “No political party or institution on this island supports the British Government’s approach to addressing the legacy of the past.”

He said that the Conservative party government in the United Kingdom agreed to pass “the most extreme legislation that shuts down access to justice for victims and survivors”.

Eastwood agreed with the assertion that the British government has “undermined the international treaty” of the Stormont House Agreement and have “set themselves against the needs of victims and survivors”.

“The inter-state case being taken by the Irish Government is both welcome and utterly necessary,” he added.

Additional reporting by Jane Matthews

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