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Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar meet during the Europe Summit in Granada, Spain, Oct 2023 Alamy Stock Photo
European Court of Human Rights

Rishi Sunak confronts Taoiseach over Ireland's legal challenge to UK's Troubles Legacy Act

Laws enacted by the UK Government seek to provide a limited form of immunity to those accused of Troubles-related offences.

UK PRIME MINISTER Rishi Sunak used a call with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to express his government’s “disappointment” over Ireland’s decision to legally challenge the British position on investigating crimes committed during the Troubles.

Laws enacted by the UK Government seek to provide a limited form of immunity to those accused of Troubles-related offences.

The move has faced staunched criticism and is opposed by many victims’ groups in Northern Ireland and all the main Stormont parties.

The call between the two leaders comes after Varadkar announced in December that the Government would legally challenge the UK Government over the Legacy Act in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

He said at the time that the “strong” legal advice was the UK Legacy Act breached the United Nations’ Convention on Human Rights.

Downing Street confirmed Sunak raised the legal action during his conversation with the Taoiseach.

A UK Government spokesman said: “The leaders addressed the Irish government’s launching of an interstate case on the UK Government’s Legacy Act.

“The Prime Minister expressed his disappointment at the timing and course of action in December, coming at such a sensitive time.

“He noted that the Irish government had yet to respond to important questions about its own approach to legacy issues, including with regard to investigations into the 1998 Omagh bombing.

“The UK Government would continue to pursue answers to those questions which had been laid out by the Secretary of State (Chris Heaton-Harris), including with regard to the lack of criminal prosecutions in Ireland.”

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister denied that the conversation had been terse, saying Sunak had been “reiterating the Government’s disappointment” that had previously been set out by Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary.

In a statement, the Taoiseach said he had had “a good call with the UK Prime Minister”, without mentioning any discussion of the case at the ECHR. 

Heaton-Harris wrote to Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin earlier this month questioning Ireland’s opposition to the Legacy Act.

Aspects of the recently passed UK laws include a limited form of immunity from prosecution for Troubles-related offences for those who co-operate with the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 will also halt future civil cases and legacy inquests.

In his letter to Martin, the Northern Ireland Secretary challenged Ireland to set out its own record on tackling legacy issues, pointing out that, while the UK has initiated a public inquiry into the 1998 Omagh bomb, the Irish government has not, despite a court ruling saying it should do likewise.

Heaton-Harris also called on Mr Martin to list the number of prosecutions mounted in the Irish state since 1998 related to Troubles incidents.

The phone call with Sunak and Varadkar came after there was a breakthrough in the DUP’s two-year boycott of powersharing arrangements at Stormont.

Sunak briefed the Taoiseach on the details of the deal struck between the DUP and the UK Government.

Asked whether the call had been difficult, Sunak’s spokeswoman said: “No, it was a good call, positive.

“They both welcomed the step that we saw from the DUP last night.”

A statement from the Taoiseach echoed that description, saying that “both leaders said they hope this paves the way for the early restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly, and that North-South Ministerial meetings will resume again.

“They agreed to keep in touch over the coming period.”

With reporting from David MacRedmond

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