IRA suspects face fresh police probes as Coalition scraps Blair-era immunities

The Daily Mail reports that six suspected IRA terrorists, believed to be behind a string of bombings in Britain, are facing fresh investigation by the police after the Government withdrew the ‘comfort letters’ they had received from the Blair administration.

These controversial letters, distributed to Republican ‘on the runs’ (OTRs) as part of the peace process, informed the recipient that they were not wanted by the police in the UK. They came to light when a falsely-issued letter collapsed the trial of John Downey, the man alleged to be behind the Hyde Park bombings.

Following a Government investigation detectives reportedly no longer believe that the letters place their recipients beyond prosecution, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland wrote to the Northern Ireland Select Committee to announce a “major new phase in its enquiries”.

However, the police acknowledge that “prosecutorial” challenges may remain.

Amongst those believed to have been issued comfort letters are the suspected perpetrators of the 1983 Harrods car bomb and the 1987 Enniskillen Armistice Day bombing.

Despite an aggressive enquiry by the Northern Ireland Committee, which may even call into question the scheme’s legality, Tony Blair has refused to apologise for either its conception or secretive implementation.

In related news, the Belfast Telegraph reported this week that hard-line Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly had received a royal pardon during the 1980s.

Kelly, who was given two life sentences for his role in the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy as part of a legal deal to extradite him from the Netherlands following his escape from the Maze prison.

Sturgeon faces grassroots revolt against all-women shortlists

For all that it is the party of government in Scotland, the Scottish National Party continues to grant its party members the ability to shape policy through the annual conference.

This is not always comfortable for the leadership, as 2012’s razor-edge u-turn on NATO membership made clear.

The Scotsman reports that now Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, faces a members’ revolt against a plan that will allow the party leadership to impose all-women shortlists on SNP constituency parties.

Under proposals tabled by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), it would be able to force local Nationalist associations to choose from an all-woman shortlist in the event that a constituency MSP stood down.

It also mandates that in the event of more than candidate being nominated for a constituency one of them “must” be female – and allows the NEC to add candidates to achieve this.

A motion to water down this proposal has been lodged by the same SNP association, Clydesdale. They have not challenged a third intended to increase the presence of women in the regional lists.

Unionist pact in four Northern Irish seats

The Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists have struck a deal to field a single candidate in four seats at the upcoming general election.

The BBC reports that the UUP will stand aside for the DUP in Belfast North and Belfast East. The former is held by DUP Parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds, whilst the latter will be the party’s prime target after Peter Robinson, party leader and First Minister, lost it to the Alliance Party in 2010.

Meanwhile the DUP have graciously stood aside for the Ulster Unionists in the Sinn Fein-held seats of Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST) and Newry and Armagh.

The latter was last won by a unionist candidate – Jim Nicholson, currently the UUP’s MEP – in the 1983 general election. Even a united candidate would have to do very well to add the four thousand or so votes to the unionist total needed to challenge Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy, assuming that the SDLP managed to hold on to their ten thousand voters.

Meanwhile FST is the UK’s most marginal seat, with Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew holding on by just four votes in 2010 against an independent unionist who would, if elected, have taken the Tory whip.

The UUP will have to hope that they can energise more of the constituency’s unionist voters than he did without driving up Sinn Fein turnout in the process.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has been forced to fend off suggestions that is party – which without Westminster representation is in a far weaker position – not the raw end of the arrangement.

Indeed, some have suggested that such alliances are a response to declining turnout in Northern Irish elections, where a deeply polarised political culture has yet to adapt to new constitutional realities.

Assembly Members unanimously back Welsh language regulations

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, claims to have ushered in an age of true bilingualism in Welsh government as AMs unanimously approve a new set of Welsh language standards, according to Wales Online.

There are 87 new standards, enforceable by penalty fines of up to £5,000 at the discretion of the Welsh Language Commissioner – who will get to decide which standards apply to which organisations.

Jones, whose embattled administration is being used in the national Conservative general election campaign due to its dire record on education and healthcare, expressed confidence that the new measures would “make bilingualism the norm in our public authorities”.