Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson has asked the Irish Government to bring forward proposals to deal with Troubles-related legacy cases in the Republic of Ireland.
It comes amid continued anger among victims’ groups and politicians from across the political divide in Northern Ireland, over plans by the British government for a statute of limitations on prosecutions and for an end to inquest and civil cases relating to Northern Ireland’s bloody past.
UK secretary of state Brandon Lewis has managed to unite all five political parties at Stormont and the Irish Government in opposition to the proposals.
A “robust” virtual meeting took place on Friday between the Stormont leaders and Mr Lewis, with Foreign Minister Simon Coveney joining in from his constituency office in Co Cork.
During the meeting, Mr Donaldson told Mr Lewis “that the path of reconciliation is not made easier when we sacrifice justice”, and asked him to ensure the process was “victim-centred”.
He also challenged Mr Coveney on the “responsibility of the Irish Government to step up the mark” in relation to the Troubles.
“They are no mere spectators in this process. Many of the deaths that occurred in the Troubles in Northern Ireland were carried out by the IRA operating in the territory of the Irish Republic,” Mr Donaldson told the Sunday Independent.
“A large number of deaths were carried out in the Irish Republic itself, including those who were abducted in Northern Ireland and murdered by the IRA in the Republic.”
The Lagan Valley MP says he wants to see justice for those killed in the South as well.
“For those members of the Gardaí, for those members of the Irish Prison Service, of the Irish Defence Forces who were murdered during the Troubles, as well as the civilians from across the Republic. I want justice for them as much as I want to see justice for the RUC, the UDR, the army, the prison service and civilians who were murdered in Northern Ireland.”
He said it is “therefore essential” that the Irish Government “brings forward proposals to deal with legacy cases in their jurisdiction, and that should also mean the pursuit of justice.”
“The Irish Government can’t on the one hand point the finger at the British government about what they’re doing, and then sit back and do nothing when it comes to their responsibility.”
Mr Donaldson added: “We are clear the outcome of any legacy process must not only include proposals to deal with what happened in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but it must also include firm proposals from the Irish Government to provide victims with access to justice and truth in the Republic of Ireland as well.”
According to sources, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney made it clear that the Irish Government does not endorse a so-called amnesty or statute of limitations being proposed by the UK.
In fact, the Government here would see any move to legislate such proposals against the wishes of the Dublin administration as “an act of bad faith”, according to a source.
Like Mr Donaldson, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie is said to have made the point that the Irish Government “must do more” to be “open and transparent” about the past.
It’s understood he told Mr Coveney that the Irish Government “turns up with a warm smile and a firm handshake, but brings nothing to the table”.
However Mr Beattie was reminded by Mr Coveney that under the Criminal Justice International Co-operation Bill 2019, the testimony of gardaí can be made available to the Northern Ireland coroner dealing with inquests into events from the Troubles.
The meeting last Friday was “blunt” according to multiple sources who were present.
Stormont justice minister Naomi Long questioned Mr Lewis on his claim that the UK’s proposals would end “vexatious prosecutions”, asking him to “show me one of them”. She also accused the British government of “politicising justice” and “re-traumatising victims”, telling Mr Lewis that nobody had factored in the hurt felt by victims following his announcement.
“It was open and frank, but there wasn’t a lot of trust in the room. People weren’t shouting over each other, but nobody held back,” said a source.
Throughout the discussion Mr Lewis insisted he had an “open mind” and that the outcome of the proposals was “not pre-determined”, a point he made more than once, say sources.
But that wasn’t enough for each of the five-party leaders, who met the remark with scepticism. More than one politician expressed fears it was “just a front”, and that Westminster would “go it alone” and bring forward legislation in the autumn anyway.
The British government was also accused of being “veteran-centred, not victim-centred.”
It’s understood that among the most vocal critics was SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who spoke about the “fundamental principles of investigation”, telling Mr Lewis if his government “cared about victims, they’d be in this meeting.”
Meanwhile, victims’ rights campaigners Raymond McCord and Billy McManus will visit Downing Street this week to deliver a letter of protest against the proposed Troubles amnesty.
Mr McCord, whose son Raymond Jnr was killed by the UVF in 1997, and Mr McManus, who lost his father William in the Sean Graham bookies massacre by the UDA in 1992, say they are outraged at proposals to end prosecutions.
The pair will be joined by families of the victims of the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings when they deliver the letter to Number 10.
Speaking yesterday Mr McCord said: “What Boris Johnson is telling the victims is ‘your lives don’t matter’.”