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The Irish government is taking legal advice over the possibility of mounting a court challenge to controversial UK legislation expected to be passed at Westminster in the coming days that would offer an amnesty for atrocities committed during Northern Ireland’s three decades-long Troubles conflict.
A legal challenge before the European Court of Human Rights would only be the second brought by Dublin against London, following a landmark case 52 years ago over its actions in Northern Ireland.
The case could put a vastly improved bilateral relationship under strain six months after the landmark Windsor framework deal between the UK and EU ended a bitter row over post-Brexit trading rules for the region.
Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin told the Financial Times that London’s legacy bill, which is opposed by all political parties on the island as well as by rights groups, would not deliver for victims of the Troubles and Dublin could not back the UK government.
“We have asked for legal advice . . . I’ll get that legal advice in the next fortnight and then we’ll consider that in terms of what action we subsequently take,” Martin said on the sidelines of a conference of the British-Irish Association in Oxford.
“There is concern with its [the bill’s] non-compliance with Article 2 [of the European Convention on Human Rights],” he added.
“Nothing is ruled out and we approach this with victims at the centre of our concerns.”
The 70-year-old ECHR was launched by the 46-nation Council of Europe to protect human rights and freedoms. Some Conservative politicians have called for the UK to leave the convention as the government seeks to crack down on immigration but respect for it is written into Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement.
The legacy bill, which shuts down new inquests and sets up an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, returns to the House of Lords on Tuesday, and is expected to go back to the Commons for approval, potentially within days.
“The legacy bill will become law,” insisted Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, before an audience of officials, politicians, academics and civil society at the British-Irish conference.
He said changes already incorporated into the bill meant it “will go into the statute book in a very good shape — in fact, it will go into the statute book with a stable foundation in international law”.
He admitted the bill did not please everyone but insisted the prospect of convictions for Troubles-era atrocities was slim a quarter of a century after the conflict ended and called on Dublin to co-operate with the commission.
Martin said he had to be “frank” about the gulf between the two neighbours and said the issue would be “challenging”.
“The bill will not, in our view, deal with legacy comprehensively,” he said. “I would still appeal to the British government to pause it.”
The Council of Europe has warned the legacy bill could undermine the human rights of victims, who say the legislation will protect perpetrators, including state security forces.
Ireland brought the first so-called interstate case to the European Court in 1971, over the UK’s interrogation techniques against 14 men who were hooded and found to have been subjected to “inhuman and degrading treatment” violating article 3 of the convention.
Sir Keir Starmer has vowed a Labour government will repeal the legacy bill if it is passed.
Despite being at loggerheads over legacy, London and Dublin both appealed to Northern Ireland’s largest pro-UK party to return to the region’s power-sharing executive at Stormont after more than a year of political limbo.
The Democratic Unionist party paralysed the executive, in which the biggest unionist and nationalist parties share power, in a row over Brexit.
“There will be no financial package on the table to incentivise a return to the executive,” Heaton-Harris said. “We all need to be honest about this.”