Crisis is set to run and run

JUSTICE Heather Hallett reviewed a Government assurance scheme for fugitive republicans linked to almost 300 murders.

She was asked by British Prime Minister David Cameron to investigate how more than 200 people were told they were not wanted for paramilitary crimes as part of a peace process deal between Sinn Féin and Tony Blair’s Labour government.

Letters informed On The Runs (OTRs) living outside Britain that they were not sought by police, allowing them to return to the jurisdiction but not ruling out future prosecutions if further evidence emerged.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has said 95 recipients were linked to conflict deaths but those connections may not be strong enough to justify arrests and may only be based on intelligence.

The messages sparked a political crisis when they were revealed during the trial of John Downey for the IRA’s 1982 Hyde Park bombing which killed four soldiers.

He had wrongly been told by the PSNI that he was not wanted for questioning or prosecution in Britain despite a Metropolitan Police warrant for his arrest for the murders.

The case revealed the extent of the government’s assurance scheme and after Mr Downey walked free, Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson warned he would resign unless an inquiry was launched and letters to OTRs rescinded.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain has outlined the background to the arrangement in 2007.

Sinn Féin Stormont assembly member and a former republican prison escapee Gerry Kelly gave names of OTRs to the government but ministers were not told who they were.

The PSNI checked records for evidence which could lead to an arrest or prosecution at the time or into the future and after a second check, if no material was found, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) signed the letters.

The attorney general confirmed the scheme was lawful, Mr Hain said.

Former attorney general Peter Goldsmith told a committee of MPs: “There was a bona fide intention to deal with a very difficult situation in order to advance the peace process in a way that didn’t damage the justice system, which didn’t involve removing people from prosecution in circumstances where prosecution was justified.”

While most cases were dealt with under the last government, almost 40 outstanding applications were taken on by the Coalition Government in 2010.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has claimed the entire controversy around OTRs was a sham crisis.

Stormont deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed the fact other republicans were denied letters — and told they would be arrested if they entered the UK — proved that assurances were nothing more than official confirmation that there was no evidence linking individuals to offences.

Mr Robinson accused Tony Blair of a “deliberate deception by omission” by failing to tell the majority of politicians in Northern Ireland about the agreement his government had struck with Sinn Féin.

Unionist critics have accused Sinn Féin of negotiating on stalled proposals for dealing with outstanding peace process issues with “get out of jail free” cards in their back pockets.

Some conflict victims viewed the letters as constituting an amnesty forterrorists but the Government has denied this and said they represented astatement of fact at a particular time.

The scheme has been halted.

Unionists recently walked out of renewed political discussions in a row over loyalist parades. But the issue of the past is arguably still among the most emotive facing society in Northern Ireland.

With more than 3,000 killed during the Troubles and most murders unsolved, countless bereaved continue to campaign for truth and justice.

Meanwhile, thousands injured in the violence daily suffer the physicalconsequences.

An agreed mechanism to address the conflict legacy has proved elusive.

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