Blair accepts responsibility for events that collapsed Hyde Park Bomb trial
During questioning by a panel of MPs today Tony Blair reportedly accepted “full responsibility for not putting in place a structure that could have stopped letter being sent that stopped the Hyde Park prosecution”, according to Wales Online.
However he refused to apologise for the scheme as a whole, arguing that without it there would never have been a peace process in Northern Ireland.
The “on the run” (OTR) scheme was established to send so-called “comfort letters” to Irish terrorists who were no longer being pursued by the police. It came to national attention after the collapse of the trial of John Downey, who was being prosecuted for the 1982 Hyde Park Bombing.
Downey had been sent a comfort letter – inadvertently, the Northern Ireland Office insists – and the judge ruled that it placed him beyond prosecution. A furious debate then erupted as to whether or not the scheme amounted to an amnesty. An investigation ruled that Downey’s acquittal was the result of “systemic failures” but found no illegality.
During a session with Northern Irish MPs Blair warned today’s politicians not to risk the working peace process they had inherited from him. This was in response to a question regarding Theresa Villiers’ decision as Northern Ireland Secretary to terminate the OTR scheme, describe it as “worthless”, and place cases covered by it under review.
He added that time would tell whether or not she was making a mistake.
Earlier this week it emerged that Blair personally phoned the Speaker to “beg” him to overturn the order requiring him to appear before MPs. In the event he successfully limited his appearance to one hour.
Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley Jr and Alliance MP Naomi Long both pressed Blair hard during questioning. Long in particular probed whether the NIO under Labour had been tacitly helping wanted Republicans to evade capture, and claimed that those who received comfort letters had not been subject to due process.
She also suggested to the former Prime Minister that the secret operation of the scheme had hurt victims most and eroded trust in the British Government. He acknowledged the pain caused but denied the existence of a “secret amnesty deal”.
In his view, informing wanted terrorists that they were no longer wanted was a necessary accompaniment to the early release of Irish terrorists from prison that was occurring at that time as part of the peace process.
The deal did not apply to loyalists, although Blair says the Government would have considered such treatment had they asked for it. This led independent unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon to claim that the entire scheme had been a secret to which only Sinn Fein were privy.
SNP accused of “mob rule” over poll tax annulment
A former serviceman has written to the Scottish Parliament’s finance committee to ask whether the Scottish Government plan to reimburse him for the Community Charge that was automatically deducted from his military salary almost two and a half decades ago.
In his submission John Nellis MBE argued that by unilaterally writing off hundreds of millions of pounds worth of poll tax arrears, the Nationalist administration in Edinburgh were penalising law-abiding Scots who had paid up, regardless of their political views.
He also argued that they were setting a dangerous precedent by allowing people to unlawfully evade tax in hope of a write-off. This view was shared by many Scottish local authorities – including some run by the SNP – who that the move will make it harder to collect council taxes.
They also reported that requests for community charge refunds were already coming in, and added that the one-off compensation payment offered by the Scottish Government does not match the debts they would otherwise have collected.
Former first minister Alex Salmond announced the annulment without warning in one of his final First Ministers Questions. It had risen to prominence after Scottish councils began combing the lists of people who had registered to vote in the independence referendum to hunt down tax evaders.
Government rejects calls for alternatives to Union Flag on driving licences
A Plaid MP has vowed to continue his struggle to get the Welsh flag onto driving licences after the Department for Transport rejected his proposals.
Nationalists of all stripes have been put out by the Government’s plans to include the Union Flag alongside the flag of the EU on all new driving licences issued in mainland Britain later this year.
A plan to include a full range of home nation flag options was eventually rejected by the DoP on cost grounds. Hywel Williams, MP for Arfon, claimed that making such a decision for financial reasons was “absurd”.
Alun Cairns MP, a minister in the Wales Office, claimed that it will strengthen the UK’s sense of national identity and stressed that it would have no bearing on the availability of bilingual licences.