Other Questions. - Shot at Dawn Campaign.

Liz McManus

Question:

8 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the nature of the support he intends to give to the Irish Shot at Dawn campaign, which is working for pardons for British soldiers executed following field courts-martial during the First World War; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30489/03]

Gay Mitchell

Question:

55 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement on the campaign to secure pardons for 306 soldiers who were Irish and were executed during the First World War. [30392/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 55 together.

The Irish Shot at Dawn campaign is seeking retrospective pardons for 26 Irish men executed by the British Army during the First World War for offences such as desertion and cowardice, which were consequently repealed by the British authorities in 1928 and 1930. The Irish campaign is ancillary to the British Shot at Dawn campaign, which is seeking pardons for 306 British soldiers executed, a figure which includes the 26 Irishmen in question.

I have instructed my officials to begin discussions with their British counterparts. We will do this in tandem with our ongoing contacts with Mr. Mulvaney, the Irish Shot at Dawn campaign co-ordinator. We will focus on the safety of the courts-martial convictions, the level of convictions against soldiers from Ireland, the lack of consideration of ameliorating medical conditions suffered by soldiers at the time, and the repeal of, inter alia, the offences of desertion and cowardice in the aftermath of the war, will inform our approach.

Moreover, our approach will also be informed by the humanitarian considerations which inspired the Government of New Zealand to pass the Pardons for Soldiers of the Great War Act 2000, the purpose of which was effectively to grant such retrospective pardons and to exonerate the soldiers from New Zealand from the opprobrium of a fate they did not deserve.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

I call Deputy Michael D. Higgins.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I have a question on this matter in my own name.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Deputy Higgins's question is first.

The question is in Deputy McManus's name, I have a question in my own name.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

The Chair is acting in accordance with long-established precedent. There is nothing out of the ordinary in this.

Does the Minister agree with those of us who tabled questions on this matter, that these are appalling crimes which have no place in a humane regime? One of the crimes for which people could be shot at dawn was falling asleep on duty. In his reply, the Minister referred to the safety of convictions. However, surely the issue is not that but that these offences existed at all. This was a war in which 80% of the casualties were service men, whereas now 80% of the people who die are civilians.

Will the Minister specify whether we will raise this matter directly with the British authorities in order to restore the good name of the people involved rather than examining on a narrow legal basis, the safety of their conviction for crimes which have no place in any civilised society.

I do not disagree with the Deputy's sentiments. There is no issue between us on this matter. The reason I have pledged support for the Shot at Dawn campaign is that each of the 26 Irishmen was executed for an offence which was repealed by the British Army and Air Force Act 1930, demonstrating that the parliamentary and public belief at the time was that the executions were unduly harsh. The number of courts-martial condemnations enlisted from Ireland was significantly higher than that experienced by other nationalities. A review of the levels of convictions indicates that soldiers from Ireland were four times more likely to suffer execution. Even though it was understood at the time, the horrific impact of the Great War on the mental state of soldiers was not addressed to any extent by the British authorities and was not taken into consideration by the systems of court-martial. The humanitarian approach adopted by the Government of New Zealand highlights that retrospective pardons can and should be provided. As that Act states: "These men suffered a fate they did not deserve".

I am pleased the Minister is supporting this campaign. He will be aware that up to 26 out of 306 soldiers are believed to have been born in Ireland. That is a disproportionate number given the relative sizes of the population. People like former Fine Gael Deputy, Paddy Harte, have taken the lead in the campaign on this issue.

If the legislation existed during the time of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and given that the Republic is a successor State, will the Minister say if the Irish Government has the power to issue a pardon to the 26 soldiers whom it is believed came from Ireland? Can some mechanism be found by which that could be done in the event of the British Government not issuing the required pardon?

Or other governments.

I have not heard that argument before. I will consider it though I am not sure what legal basis one has in that regard. British military rules and regulations at the time dictated the fate of these men. I will try to assist the people involved in this campaign. It is right that I should do so.

I have had a number of official meetings with Mr. Peter Mulvaney, the co-ordinator of Shot at Dawn. We have carefully researched this matter and have sought to be as informed as possible before making any decisions on the veracity of the case. This is an example of a further advance in the acceptance that service in the British army prior to independence was part of our heritage and consequently our concern for the welfare and treatment of soldiers is the next logical step towards our acceptance of that time.

Will the Minister agree that all the men shot were volunteers and not conscripts and that most of them were members of Irish regiments recruited in this State? Will he further agree that this Government is a successor in terms of legal authority to the government which recruited these men and that, therefore, rather than looking to the British to issue a pardon, given that Britain no longer has any jurisdiction in the area from which these men came, the appropriate authority to issue a pardon is this Government, of which he is a member.

I am not so sure the Deputy is correct or that it is possible to do what he suggests. I have not heard that argument before but I will consider it.

The executions were carried out under British military legislation in a Westminster parliament. The means by which this wrong can be undone must come from within that legal framework. I cannot give a "Yes" or "No" answer to the Deputy. I do not know the answer to his question. As I said earlier to Deputy Gay Mitchell, I will investigate all avenues to find a way to be of assistance in this regard.

The review of the matter carried out in 1998 by the British Government raises more questions than it answers by concluding that all those executed were victims of the war while simultaneously reaffirming that the convictions stand. These positions are incompatible. The case for a pardon is strong when one adds to it that Irishmen were far more likely than other nationals to be executed. The passage of time argument does not hold up. Much time has been lost because the British military, for 70 years, sealed the files of those executed. If there was sufficient evidence to convict, those records should be equally amenable to review.

The success of those who lobbied the British Government in the immediate aftermath of the Great War and who radically changed the military court-martial system in such a dramatic fashion, epitomises the depth of feeling on this contentious issue and puts paid to the argument that public opinion of the time supported the military system of justice. We are not holding up modern standards against those prevailing at the time but those who questioned those standards.

Will the Minister agree that if we were to establish a tribunal of inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act 1921, a British statute, we would ask the British Government to set it up for us? Likewise, if these men were executed under legislation passed by the united parliament of Great Britain and Ireland, the sovereign authority in this State until 1921, the appropriate successor authority with the power to pardon these men is the Irish Government?

The Minister said that legislation was repealed in Britain in 1930. If it was on the British statute book up to 1930 and was extant in 1918, presumably it was also on our Statute Book. Will the Minister indicate if that legislation has been repealed here in so far as it affects the Irish Defence Forces?

As I do not have supplementary information in that regard, I will forward a reply to the Deputy. While I cannot accede to his argument, I will consider it.

The Minister is a lawyer.

I am a lawyer.

The Minister is a good lawyer.

I am also aware, as a lawyer, where legal responsibility in this matter lay, where it continues to lie and why it needs to be resolved.

Responsibility for the matter lies with a Government of which the Minister is a member.

There is no need to argue about the matter.

We are here to argue on such matters.

Is the Minister aware of the British Government's response to this campaign and is he optimistic about its role in forthcoming pardons for the 306 soldiers involved? Will a decision be made in the near future?

While a review carried out by the British Government in 1998 stated it acknowledged these people were victims of war, it was not, for many reasons, in a position to issue a pardon. That is the reason the campaign continues and is why we should explore all avenues, including those mentioned by Deputies John Bruton and Gay Mitchell.