A decision by the Dublin government to take an inter-state case against Britain over new cover-up legislation has been widely welcomed in Ireland but has drawn a bitter response from London who have vowed to defend their soldiers regardless.
In the long and dark history of British war crimes in Ireland, is only the second time it has faced on inter-state case under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) since Ireland pursued a case over the torture of the ‘Hooded Men’ in 1971.
It is a major international embarrassment for the British government, whose legislation, intended to end all conflict-related proceedings, not only breaches the ECHR, but also violates peace process agreements.
All of the parties in the North, including the unionist parties, had urged the Tory government not to pass the legislation, dubbed the ‘Bill of Shame’ by victims’ groups.
“I regret that we find ourselves in a position where such a choice had to be made,” Tánaiste Micheal Martin said on Wednesday.
“The British government removed the political option, and has left us only this legal avenue.”
Although expectations had been high, the announcement came as a relief to families of victims of British state killings and collusion, a number of whom were forced to bring their own legal actions to stop a guillotine for conflict-related cases in May.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the “cruel and shameful Act” was a flagrant breach of international human rights law.
“The British Tory Government rushed through this legislation despite the clear opposition and concerns raised by victims and families, all political parties, the Irish Government, the US, UN, the Council of Europe and human rights experts.
“It is a blatant attempt to shut the door on families’ efforts to achieve truth and justice through the courts and to give an amnesty to British state forces involved in the murder of, and serious human rights violations against, Irish citizens.
“Heartbroken families have been fighting for years, determined to get truth and justice for their loved ones. They should not have been forced to take individual legal actions against this Act, and this action by the government will now complement these challenges.
“We will stand with those families as they challenge this cruel and cynical law, and as they continue to campaign with dignity and determination for truth and justice.”
A number of human rights groups including Amnesty International welcomed the development, which ‘Relatives for Justice’ said had followed months of intense lobbying by families, NGOs, political parties and Irish America.
“All Irish citizens affected by all actors to the conflict must have their rights defended by the Irish government, this is practical defense of those rights,” they said.
“We recognise it is a move not taken lightly, but reflects the egregious position the Legacy Act has created. “This move is in the interests of victims and survivors. It is not only a legal move, it is a humanitarian one.
“It is a move that defends the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement, in this, the year of its 25th anniversary. It is a move that, unlike the appalling Legacy Act, defends hope and healing.”
British Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris claimed surprise at the development and argued Ireland had made no “concerted or sustained attempt” to pursue its own conflict-related investigations.
He said: “They have been critical about our proposed approach on the grounds that it moves away from a focus on criminal prosecutions. We believe that the Irish government’s stated position on dealing with legacy issues is inconsistent and hard to reconcile with its own record.”
British military leaders and Tory MPs also expressed outrage, accusing Ireland of “meddling” in British politics and trying to overturn the impunity available to the British military. English newspapers declared British PM Rishi Sunak had “hit out” at the move, but without details.
One senior British government source was quoted in the London Telegraph calling for Ireland to “back off”.
“The Irish government, Sinn Féin and Joe Biden are all cut from the same cloth. But we are not going to climb down over this. We are confident we will win.”