‘Comfort letters’ to IRA fugitives may have been unlawful, claims Robinson…
Peter Robinson, the First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has alleged that the ‘comfort letters’ sent to IRA “on the runs” (OTRs) by the Northern Ireland Office and PSNI may have been unlawful.
Members of his party have referred the issue to Stormont’s Justice Minister, the Alliance Party’s David Ford, and talks have been arranged with both the PSNI and Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State.
Robinson further claims that Peter Hain gave false information to the House of Commons whilst NI Secretary by telling the UUP’s Sylvia Hermon that the Government had no plans for OTRs, despite the comfort letter system having been established at that time by the Northern Ireland office. Hain denies this.
Meanwhile, the DUP and UUP together passed a motion through Stormont condemning the letters. Only Sinn Fein voted against, with both the nationalist SDLP and new unionist NI21 abstaining.
…as both nationalists and unionists Hain’s call for Bloody Sunday amnesty…
One of the strange things about Peter Hain’s “astonishment” that the Hyde Park bomber had been brought to trial was the irregular nature of the unofficial statute of limitations it suggested. It didn’t seem credible that 1982 could be too far back to prosecute a Republican terrorist whilst British soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday, a full decade earlier, were still being pursued.
The general consensus seems to be that you prosecute the law-breakers on both sides. Hain, having boxed himself into a corner, instead suggested the soldiers be let off too. In essence, the PSNI would drop all attempts to prosecute historical Troubles-related cases (including those of Loyalist paramilitaries) and instead focus on today’s crimes and dissident Republican activity.
This hasn’t gone down well in Ulster, with unionists or republicans.
The families of Bloody Sunday victims are obviously outraged, as are republicans and nationalist opinion in general. Justice Minister David Ford, from the border-neutral Alliance, has said: “As far as I am concerned, the agencies of the justice system have a responsibility and duty to investigate crimes and, where possible, bring a satisfactory prosecution.” The DUP’s Sammy Wilson described the suggestion as an “affront to justice”, and represents a broader view that two wrongs do not make a right and unionists do not simply want an equally dirty deal to spare criminals on ‘their side’.
Hain was not entirely without support though. Apparently Basil McCrea, one-time Tory defection hope and leader of NI21, agrees that the PSNI need to “draw a line” under the Troubles if Northern Ireland is to move on.
…and today’s Labour offer “an unequivocal apology”…
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Ivan Lewis has said that Labour owes the families of those murdered in the Hyde Park bombing an unequivocal apology over the Blair administration’s “catastrophic error” in placing dozens of wanted republicans beyond prosecution.
He also apologised for the “crass insensitivity” of those who appeared more upset by the ‘unjust’ treatment of John Downey, the accused, rather than the victims. Peter Hain’s ears must surely be burning.
…whilst yesterday’s Labour dismiss the issue
That contrition isn’t universal, however. Taking to the Telegraph, former Blair staffer John McTernan lauds the way that Jonathan Powell, another former Blair aide, set out with “his normal logic and clarity” that the letters weren’t part of a deal and did not constitute an amnesty. “Why has there been such a fuss?” he asks, before suggesting the answer is that the unionists have their eyes on upcoming elections and people still like attacking Blair.
The more obvious answer – that these “definitely not an amnesty” letters served to render a suspected terrorist immune to prosecution, which looks a lot like an amnesty to everyone else – appears to escape him.
Charles Moore has a good go at more thoroughly picking apart Powell’s defence elsewhere in the Telegraph. But before all the blame for this gets laid at Blair’s door, or justified with reference to the exigent circumstances of the road to the Good Friday Agreement, Chris Kilpatrick in the Belfast Telegraph reminds us that, astonishingly, 38 of these letters have been issued since the Coalition took office.