By Rebecca Black and Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Tánaiste Micheál Martin has said that Ireland’s opposition to the UK’s legacy Bill is “very clear”, as he called on Westminster to halt the legislation’s progress.
It comes after Amnesty International warned that the Irish Government needs to “put a public marker down” over the handling of the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.
Amnesty led a delegation of Troubles victims and families to meet Mr Martin in Belfast on Thursday to discuss concerns over the Bill.
The legislation, which has been almost universally opposed, proposes offering immunity for people accused of crimes during the Troubles – as long as they co-operate with a new truth recovery body – and stopping future court processes.
Speaking after meeting the families, Mr Martin said Ireland’s opposition was made “very clear” to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, and to the UK government.
“We are opposed to the legacy Bill, and we had further discussions with the Secretary of State, and we will be having more discussions on that into the future as well,” the Tánaiste told reporters in Belfast.
“We’re very anxious that anything that happens in respect of legacy is human-rights compliant and fulfils the European Convention of Human Rights.
Mr Martin said there was significant and substantive continuing engagement between the British and Irish governments on the Bill.
“Everything remains on the table in terms of possibilities,” the foreign affairs minister said.
“But in the first instance, we have to give room and space for the engagement that’s currently under way.”
Mr Martin said the Irish Government wants the UK government to pause progress of the Bill and re-engage with Northern Ireland’s political parties and victims’ groups.
“The Good Friday Agreement – the anchor of what underpinned that – was the two governments working hand in glove with all of the political parties in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“The big game changer was the synergy and the way that the Irish and British governments worked together – and that remains the case.
“And one of our concerns in respect of the legacy has been there’s been a unilateral approach to legacy.”
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty UK’s Northern Ireland deputy director, had earlier called on Ireland to take an inter-state challenge to the European Court of Human Rights if the Bill becomes law.
She said the Irish Government’s opposition to the Bill should prompt “this course of action”.
It was indicated to the delegation that “all cards are on the table, and an inter-state case is under active consideration”, she said.
“We’ve called on the Tánaiste here today for the Irish Government to put a public marker down to signal to the UK Government that if they force the Bill through to law, that they will take an inter-state case,” she said.
“We understand from the meeting here today that this is something that is being actively considered and that the Tanaiste is continuing to engage with the Prime Minister around negotiations in regards to dealing with the past and a way forward.”
Ms Teggart said Amnesty remains significantly and gravely concerned that the UK is “not paying heed to the opposition to the Bill”.
“For the victims that we work with, many have been fighting through the courts for decades for a measure of truth, justice and accountability, which the Bill which now permanently deny,” she said.
“They simply don’t have, in many cases, the years left that it will take to fight this Bill through the courts if it becomes law.
“The Irish Government has a critical role to play here – they can petition and go directly to the European Court of Human Rights, they can lodge a case within four months of the Bill becoming law and they can expedite this process.
“It’s very clear that the UK Government are not listening to victims here, it’s therefore all the more vital that the Irish Government do listen, have listened, and take this course of action.”
The delegation included Eugene Reavey, from Co Armagh, whose brothers were killed by the Glenanne Gang in 1976, Eugene Oliver, whose father Tom was killed by the IRA in 1991, Gerald McAnespie, brother of Aidan McAnespie, who was killed by a soldier in 1988, and lawyer Darragh Mackin.
Mr Reavey said they were “reasonably well satisfied by the responses from the Tanaiste and his team”.
He said the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement left victims to one side, adding: “The victims have never got to the forefront, they’ve been kicked down the road all the time and it is time that we had some sort of closure.
“I was well pleased with that meeting and I think that the Tanaiste is a man of his word.”
Mr Oliver said he wants to see the Irish Government put its foot down and “not let this go through”.