ConservativeHome has learned that, as part of legacy legislation being drawn up by the Northern Ireland Office, the Government is preparing to legislate against controversial ‘comfort’ letters issued to on-the-run suspects wanted in connection to IRA terror offenses in Northern Ireland.
Brandon Lewis is understood to have instructed his officials that any legacy legislation brought forward must explicitly make clear that ‘OTRs’ have no basis in law.
These lurched into the public consciousness in 2014, when the scheme helped to collapse the trial of John Downey, the Hyde Park bomber. They were letters issued to on-the-run IRA suspects assuring them that no UK police force was after them.
In Downey’s case, the letter was sent in error – the Metropolitan Police were after him. But a judge ruled that because he had received it, the trial could not proceed.
As Charles Moore explained in a column for the Daily Telegraph, the reason the operation of the OTR scheme was so murky was because it was basically a wheeze by Tony Blair to circumvent the will of Parliament:
“Sinn Fein had wanted them all let off. The Blair government had framed legislation effectively granting this wish. It was dropped in 2006 – “in the face,” as Mr Powell himself put it, “of strong opposition”.
“But, being “Tonyish”, the Blair government did not leave it at that. It got around the will of Parliament. Without fanfare, the official comfort letters were sent – and continued to be sent after Mr Blair left office. Powell says that they were not part of any deal over OTRs. Yet it is notable that the letters were sent solely to IRA suspects (ie people under the wing of Sinn Fein) and not to any other OTRs – Republican or Loyalist.”
Yet whilst the original sin was New Labour’s, ‘comfort letters’ continued to be issued right up until the days of the Coalition.
According to the Belfast Telegraph, just 36 of the 187 recipients of such letters are connected to no fewer than 136 incidents, and “police have since revealed that OTRs who received letters were linked to hundreds of murders.”
Even today, it isn’t obvious exactly what the legal status or purpose of the OTR scheme was. As Moore notes, New Labour figures defending the scheme seem to have a hard time getting their stories straight. Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary in 2014, said Labour owed the Hyde Park victims an apology for the “catastrophic error” which denied them justice; Jonathan Powell demurred.
Regardless, it would be fitting for Parliament to annul by legislation what Blair set up because he could not persuade Parliament to legislate as he wished. It might yet also give some of those who lost friends and loved ones to IRA terrorism a last, long shot at justice – although the exact shape of Lewis’ new legacy proposals is not yet clear.