Taoiseach Micheál Martin has strongly criticised proposals by the British government to introduce "what amounts to a general amnesty" to end prosecutions for crimes related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, told the House of Commons in Westminster that the Statute of Limitations could become law this autumn.
The statute would end prosecutions for Troubles killings up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. Critics have said such a move would represent an amnesty.
The move would prevent any further criminal investigations into killings by former British soldiers, police officers and members of British military intelligence.
It would also apply to killings by the IRA, Ulster Defence Association, Ulster Volunteer Force and other republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations.
Mr Lewis said the past was a constant shadow over Northern Ireland and that current systems for dealing with the legacy of that past are not working.
The Taoiseach said the proposals were "wrong for many, many reasons" and called on the UK government to honour the Stormont House Agreement.
Micheál Martin told the Dáil: "The introduction of what amounts to a general amnesty for all security personnel, and all paramilitaries, for murders and other crimes, up until the Good Friday Agreement is not the right way to go.
"It's wrong for many, many reasons. I've stated that consistently.
"I don't believe in a general amnesty for those who committed murder, whether they were State actors, or whether they were involved in terrorist or illegal organisations. I just don't believe in that.
"We have consistently said [this] at the British Irish Government Council, there was an agreement to continue engagement with all parties and victims groups on these issues.
"That process has now started, as you know. The British Government may be setting out its position.
"But our position as an Irish Government, shared with all of the political parties in the North and all of the victim groups, remain consistent with that of Stormont House."
The Stormont House Agreement of 2014 included provisions to investigate killings and other crimes associated with the Troubles.
These included the establishment of a Historical Inquiries Unit, an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, an Oral History Archive and the creation of an Implementation and Reconciliation Group.
However, the British Government failed to implement the terms of the agreement and has instead moved to limit historical investigations.
The move has been slammed by victims and political parties in Northern Ireland, who criticised them as a "de facto amnesty".
Raising the issue with the Taoiseach, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the proposals were an "insult to victims and their families."
She said they would create an amnesty for "British soldiers who went into the streets and gunned down innocent civilians in Derry, Ballymurphy and beyond".
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis says it is clear that the system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is not working. The past is a constant shadow over the people of Northern Ireland, he says. | Read more: https://t.co/8KyvuDey2r pic.twitter.com/VCVCWxIsGB— RTÉ News (@rtenews) July 14, 2021
Ms McDonald added: "An amnesty for State and non-State actors that acted on behalf and in collusion with the British State.
"People who always believed that they would never be held to account for their actions, and that the truth behind Britain's dirty war in Ireland would remain forever hidden by the British state."
She continued: "This is an insult to victims and their families.
"It's an act of absolute bad faith on the part of the British government and it's left victims and survivors and their families believing that this is a fait accompli, a unilateral action from the British government and that the Stormont House Agreement has now been binned."
More than 3,500 people died during the Northern Ireland Troubles, which stretched from the early 1970s to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998, while tens of thousands more were injured.
The five parties that make up the Stormont Executive and groups representing victims have all said they oppose such a move.
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Speaking in the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the plans. "The people of Northern Ireland must, if we possibly can allow them to, move forwards now.
"The sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s, 80s and later, and we're finally bringing forward a solution to this problem, to enable the province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the Troubles, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward."
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis says more than two-thirds of Troubles-related deaths took place over 40 years ago, and it is increasingly difficult for the courts to provide families with answers. | Read more: https://t.co/8KyvuDey2r pic.twitter.com/8osXbBoexr— RTÉ News (@rtenews) July 14, 2021
Labour's spokesperson on Northern Ireland, Louise Haigh, said the government's plans were unsustainable and did not uphold the rule of law.
She said: "Ministers today appear to have concluded that the rule of law no longer applies. An amnesty for the republican and loyalist terrorists who tortured, maimed, disappeared and murdered men, women, and children."
The proposal was first mooted in May, just days before a coroner in Belfast ruled that ten Catholic civilians shot dead by members of the British Parachute Regiment in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in August 1971 were entirely innocent and their killings unjustified.
Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime, Brandon Lewis said the proposal is necessary because the current system is not working.
He said the British government wants to move forward from a system that is broken at the moment, is not serving anybody, to find a way to get information recovery that can deliver for families and for victims.
Mr Lewis said it was disappointing to hear the opposition parties giving their views on the paper, "but not actually putting forward any ideas".
He also said he is keen to see how the Irish Government will engage with the information recovery.
He said there are still cases about which the First Minister has written to the Taoiseach and they are awaiting information on those cases.
Mr Lewis said the British Government is not working unilaterally, "that's what the engagement process is about", working across Northern Ireland and with the Irish Government as well.
'Very much not a done deal' - Coveney
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the British government's plans, although it is being presented as a fait accompli, is "very much not a done deal".
Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, he said he had spoken to Mr Lewis who told him that it was a policy statement rather than a draft piece of legislation that was being delivered today.
The minister said he would approach discussions around the matter with an open mind and hoped that Mr Johnson would too.
Mr Coveney said that the British government's approach to legacy issues in Northern Ireland has changed fundamentally and the Irish Government would oppose any move to introduce a statute of limitations for crimes that occurred before 1998.
Speaking in the House of Commons, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the plans to introduce a statute of limitations for Troubles-related offences would be "rejected by everyone in Northern Ireland who stands for justice and the rule of law".
He said: "Victims will see these proposals as perpetrator-focused rather than victim-focused and an insult to both the memory of those innocent victims who lost their lives during our Troubles and their families."
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson says he wants to take the path to reconciliation, but he cannot believe that is made easier when we sacrifice justice for victims. 'It cannot be at their expense.' | Read more: https://t.co/8KyvuDey2r pic.twitter.com/MWNKK3BmSr— RTÉ News (@rtenews) July 14, 2021
The statement by Mr Lewis comes almost three weeks after the Irish and British governments announced "short and focused" talks with Northern Ireland's political parties, victims and survivors of the Troubles.
The talks were announced jointly by Minister Coveney and the Northern Secretary after a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin Castle last month.
The stated aim was to find "an agreed way forward" on how best to deal with legacy issues.
But there has only been one meeting, co-chaired by senior officials from the Northern Ireland Office and the Irish Government. A second meeting had been due to take place this morning, but was cancelled.
A range of senior political sources in Northern Ireland say they believe the British government has made up its mind on the issue and "is telling us, not asking what is the best way forward".
A former head of the British army has described the plans as "the least worst solution".
General Richard Dannatt said he "welcomed" the move but told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This isn't the solution to everyone's problems; I call it the least worst solution.
"But it does provide a mechanism whereby investigations can continue, questioning can continue so that families who lost loved ones during the Troubles get to know what happened but without the fear of prosecution being held above the heads of military veterans."
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said any unilateral action by the British government to end prosecutions would be "a breach of trust" and "a betrayal of the victims".
Additional reporting PA