Unionists and IRA victims yesterday gave cautious welcomes to an Irish government offer to engage with unionists about the Republic’s alleged security failings during the Troubles.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said at the British Irish Association in Cambridge on Saturday: “We need to acknowledge those unionists who feel that, notwithstanding the sacrifices made by members of An Garda Síochána and the Irish army throughout the Troubles, the Irish state could have done more to prevent the IRA’s murderous activities in border areas.”
Yesterday, Dublin sources told the News Letter that it was hoped the Irish Deputy Prime Minister’s speech and the sentiments therein would assist the forthcoming talks process with former US envoy Richard Haass on flags, parades and dealing with the past.
It is believed that the Irish government is keen to be understood by the unionist community as being “genuine and constructive” in the process.
DUP MLA Arlene Foster said: “I would give the comments from Eamon Gilmore a cautious welcome as it represents at least some progress from a point where no consideration was given to the role of the Irish government and a lack of action to combat the IRA.
“Mr Gilmore has at least moved some distance to acknowledge that those concerns are real, and we will wait to see what is outlined to investigate this and finally acknowledge and accept it on the part of the Irish government.”
The University of Ulster’s Professor Henry Patterson welcomed the news.
He said that “discussions of how Northern Ireland should deal with the past have largely ignored the role of the Irish state and the ethnic cleansing of border Protestants, focusing instead on British state transgressions and collusion”.
He added: “Successive Irish governments, with the partial exception of the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition of 1973-77, declined to take the issue of Provisional exploitation of their territory seriously.”
Kenny Donaldson, of Innocent Victims United (IVU), said Mr Gilmore’s comments represented “a significant development in policy position”.
IVU will be “testing and also pressing him and colleagues in the days and weeks ahead to ensure that the government of the Irish Republic delivers on the sound bites contained within the Cambridge speech”.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the Westminster Government spent “hundreds of millions on seemingly never-ending investigations into nationalist grievances”.
He added: “With the noticeable exception of Smithwick Tribunal there has been a total failure by the Republic to face up to the role they played in the IRA campaign.”
Mr Allister called for an independent inquiry into alleged Irish state provision of weapons and money to the PIRA.
Willie Frazer, spokesman for Co Armagh victims’ group FAIR, said the comments were “a welcome surprise”.
He added: “If this is genuine, this is the type of thing we have been looking for for 15 years and will really help move us all forward.
“I agree with him that there were many good gardai and Irish soldiers but there were also some bad ones. Some of the boys that drafted up the 1965 extradition legislation were later charged with IRA gun-running in 1969.”
UUP MLA Danny Kennedy said: “This is a very welcome if tentative beginning to an acknowledgement of issues we have long been campaigning for; that the Irish government did not do enough to protect border communities from the IRA.
“I hope this will be the beginning of such a process and as such it would be churlish not to accept the offer.”
SDLP MLA Alex Attwood said Mr Gilmore’s comments were significant.
“The essential challenge around the past is whether others will resist mechanisms of truth and accountability and protect the vested interests of state organisations or terror groups,” he said.
Sinn Fein were invited to comment but had not done so at the time of going to press.
Timeline of key events:
2001: First Minister David Trimble presses Bertie Ahern for an inquiry into alleged state/IRA collusion
2006: The Irish government accepts at the St Andrews talks that dealing with the past would not be exclusive to Northern Ireland, says Jeffrey Donaldson MP
2011: Prof Henry Patterson calls on Dublin to open state archives about Irish ministers’ alleged arms purchases for PIRA
2012: In September and October, Danny Kennedy MLA and Arlene Foster MLA bring border IRA victims to meet the Taoiseach and press for an apology for border security ‘failings’
Also in September, the Assembly calls on the Irish government to apologise for its alleged role in the IRA’s emergence
2013: Prof Patterson stirs debate with his book ‘Ireland’s Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations During the Troubles’