Northern Ireland

Watch: Simon Coveney spells out Dublin's opposition to British government's legacy legislation

IN what could well be one of his final interviews after five years as foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney tells Political Correspondent John Manley that despite the current impasse around the protocol he's most preoccupied by the British government's controversial legacy legislation.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Picture by Mal McCann
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Picture by Mal McCann

SIMON Coveney was in Belfast yesterday for what may well be his last trip north as minister for foreign affairs. On Saturday week, his party leader Leo Varadkar will take over as taoiseach from Micheál Martin, with the latter widely expected to then take the foreign affairs portfolio. It's a handover that is likely to impact only on three senior government roles, with Mr Coveney earmarked to step into the Fine Gael leader's current job as minister for enterprise, trade and employment.

He told The Irish News that he'd like to remain in his current role.

"I hope that people in Northern Ireland know that it's a place that I care about a lot – I've travelled here lot, and I have a lot of friends here," he said.

"I would really like to be able to continue some of the challenging work that we've been involved in recent months, so that we could stare at some of these issues to a conclusion and look forward to a much more positive future than we've seen over the last few years. But look, I'm also a realist, and sometimes in politics things change."

The former tanáiste was in the north for a series of meetings, focussing mainly on the ongoing protocol impasse and the British government's controversial legacy legislation. He thinks a deal within weeks on the post-Brexit trade arrangements that have led to a DUP boycott of the institutions is "possible... [but] I wouldn't say likely".

"In an ideal world, finding accommodation and a landing zone for an agreed way forward on the protocol that could then, I hope, trigger a more constructive political conversation in Northern Ireland that that could facilitate a functioning assembly and, and a formation of an executive," he said.

With no Stormont institutions in place, Mr Coveney supports Chris Heaton-Harris's move to cut MLAs' pay, believing he made "the right judgement call".

"The budget for Northern Ireland is under strain, as it is everywhere and I think the public find it difficult to understand that if there's not a functioning assembly, if there's not a functioning executive, why should public representatives be on full pay," he said.

However, one matter where the Fine Gael deputy leader is at variance with his friend and former fellow MEP Mr Heaton-Harris is on the approach to legacy.

The foreign affairs minister has previously voiced misgivings about the British government's Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, but yesterday he offered his most blunt criticism yet.

The meeting with the secretary of state ran over by some 40 minutes – time that was taken up talking about the vexed issue of legacy and the plans to effectively dump what was agreed at Stormont House in 2014 and offer combatants what amounts to an amnesty.

"I think victims and their families have rights and one of those rights is the right to to pursue justice through the courts," he said.

"I believe that what's being proposed at the moment, in the legislation as it's currently drafted, is effectively to introduce an amnesty, with a very low threshold that one would have to reach in order to get that amnesty – and I believe that that is on lots of levels, an unacceptable approach."

The minister says that in its current form, the Dublin government cannot support the legislation.

"Legally, I don't believe it's sound – I don't believe it's consistent with the UK's obligations under international humanitarian law," he said.

He points to the number of groups and institutions who've been critical of the bill and its failure to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, including church leaders, Westminster's Joint Committee on Human Rights and Amnesty International.

"So legally, politically, but also morally, this is something that I believe will be seen as protecting the perpetrator of violence rather than the victim – and that is something that we just simply cannot support," he said

Mr Coveney said despite assurances from the secretary of state that amendments will address some of the concerns that have been expressed, he saw nothing in the legislation that Dublin could support.

"The point I was making was that of all of the challenges that society in Northern Ireland faces, the legacy of the past is arguably the most sensitive of them," he said.

He said dealing with the past should be something the two governments do together – "not unilaterally with one government deciding to do its own thing, against the advice of virtually everybody".

The Fine Gael deputy leader said legacy was "not a republican or a loyalist or a nationalist or unionists thing – our approach and legacy is equal across all families and society".

He said the Republic's government would like to have an "all-Ireland approach, that could deal with cross-border cases".

"So that I could say honestly to the Kingsmill families and others who believe that their loved ones were murdered by gangs that came across the border, that we could actually have have an approach that could ensure that we do everything we can to provide truth and justice in those cases," he said.

"But the approach that the British government is currently taking means that we cannot do that, because we cannot do south of the border what they're proposing to do north of the border, which is which is effectively to put in place the facilitation of an amnesty, which makes it impossible for a court and a judge to determine whether or not a murder took place."