A senior Northern Ireland MP has demanded an urgent response from the Irish Government over claims by a former Irish justice minister of a top-level decision not to pursue IRA killers in the republic.
Jeffrey Donaldson, of the Democratic Unionist Party, said he is appalled by the revelation which he warned will have a significant impact on ongoing talks about dealing with the past.
The Lagan Valley MP was responding to suggestions by Dublin’s former Tanaiste and ex-justice minister Michael McDowell that a de facto amnesty has operated south of the border for years.
“Frankly, I am not surprised by this revelation but I am appalled by it,” said Mr Donaldson, his party’s victims spokesman.
“The innocent victims of terrorism in the Irish Republic are entitled to justice and it is a matter of concern that the Irish Government appears to have taken a unilateral decision not to pursue justice in such cases.”
Mr McDowell last week told the Press Association of “a consensus” in the Republic dating back at least 14 years that the Garda would no longer be prosecuting historical paramilitary cases.
He said: “In fact what happened in the Republic was that there was just a decision by the guards to use their resources to prevent current crime and current offences and not to go back over the IRA’s campaign of violence.”
Mr Donaldson said the revelation would fuel concerns about many investigations including those into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974, which killed 34 people, and the killings of two senior RUC officers near the Irish border in 1989.
A long-running inquiry into the deaths of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Supt Robert Buchanan in an ambush last year ruled that botched investigations were down to political expediency at the cost of victims’ rights.
Mr Donaldson said Taoiseach Enda Kenny must immediately clarify the Irish government’s current policy on prosecuting past IRA and loyalist paramilitary crimes.
“It will have a major bearing on the ongoing discussions that we are having in Northern Ireland about how we deal with the legacy of the past,” he said.
“We need to know from the current Irish government: is the position outlined by Michael McDowell the current position of the Irish government in relation to historic cases?”
Mr Donaldson said the victims of terrorist atrocities are entitled to know the truth.
During talks in 2000, Mr McDowell - then attorney general - suggested to his British counterpart that fugitive IRA suspects could be granted royal pardons.
The contentious measure was proposed as both governments were trying to bring senior republicans “in from the cold” during a critical stage in the fledgling peace process.
Asked if there were similar proposals discussed in the Irish Republic, he said: “Generally speaking there was a consensus in the Republic that the police would no longer be prosecuting historical cases.”
Debate is raging in Northern Ireland about how to deal with past murders linked to the recent conflict.
Last year, the North’s attorney general John Larkin created a furore when he suggested no further investigations should be carried out into murders committed before the Good Friday Agreement.
A British government-ordered inquiry into so-called “comfort letters” issued to IRA fugitives found last week that they were lawful and not an amnesty.
The letters advised the republican suspects they were not wanted by police and only publicly emerged when the trial collapsed of a man suspected of the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing.
The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) also urged the Irish Government to clarify any decisions taken about prosecuting paramilitary fugitives.
Stormont MLA Alban Maginness, the party’s justice spokesman, said: “Transparency in all things relating to on-the-runs is something that the SDLP would want to see.
“It would be in the public interest if the Irish Government were to make any methodology they used in relation to this issue public.”