By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - The Irish government has urged Britain not to seek to shield former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the sectarian conflict from prosecution, describing reports of such plans as deeply alarming.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported late on Wednesday that the British government is set to introduce a ban on prosecutions of its veterans who served in the UK province under new legislation to be announced next week.
Dublin had strongly advised London "against any unilateral action on such a sensitive issue," a spokesman for Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Thursday. Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said ministers were "deeply alarmed" by the reports and would not support such a move.
It would also breach a 2014 agreement between Dublin, London and the parties in Northern Ireland that sought to deal with legacy issues by establishing an independent investigation unit to re-examine all unsolved killings, he added.
A UK government spokesperson did not respond directly to the report but said the current system was "not working for anyone, failing to bring satisfactory outcomes for families, placing a heavy burden on the criminal justice system, and leaving society in Northern Ireland hamstrung by its past."
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, whose Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party heads up the devolved power-sharing government with their former pro-Britain foes, said a ban on prosecutions would be "a cynical move that will put British forces beyond the law."
The nationalist SDLP party also said they would strongly oppose any legislation.
Allegations over unresolved crimes from Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' - three decades of sectarian confrontation between Irish nationalist militants, pro-British "loyalist" paramilitaries and British military that killed around 3,600 people - remain a contentious issue 23 years after a peace deal was struck.
A ban on prosecutions could add to tensions in the British-run region, where young pro-British loyalists rioted in recent weeks, partly over post-Brexit trade barriers that they feel have cut them off from the rest of the UK.
A murder trial of two ex-British soldiers accused of shooting dead an Irish Republican Army commander collapsed this week.
A separate trial of a soldier accused of murdering 13 unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers in Londonderry in 1972, when British paratroopers opened fire on the group on what became known as on "Bloody Sunday", is ongoing.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin, additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London; editing by John Stonestreet, Alexandra Hudson)