Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Hallett Review: Dealing with past needs a new process

Chief Constable George Hamilton again apologised yesterday over the OTRs row. But it was a political blunder as much as a policing failure, writes Brian Rowan

Main: First Minister Peter Robinson holds the report outside the Stormont Hotel in Belfast yesterday

There is a huge gap between full disclosure and knowing nothing. And it is in that space that the arguments about the on-the-runs (OTR) controversy will continue.

Chief Constable George Hamilton apologised again yesterday for the PSNI blunder that meant Hyde Park bomb suspect John Downey was wrongly given a letter of assurance that he was not wanted by police.

And it was with the collapse of that case some months back that a political earthquake shook the institutions at Stormont.

The review by Lady Justice Hallett was Prime Minister David Cameron's response as First Minister Peter Robinson threatened resignation.

And part of the outworking of that review has meant another apology this time in the words and voice of Mr Hamilton acknowledging that, on Downey, the PSNI dropped the ball.

There was criticism also of the terms of reference set for the detective team working out of a quiet office in Clogher and assessing individual cases against the available intelligence and evidence.

The issue here was about the evidential threshold in determining whether a suspect should, or should not, be deemed wanted.

But there is something that needs to be remembered as politicians and others read through and consider the near-300 pages of Hallett.

All that happened stemmed from a political deal at the highest level. Everything else dropped down from the arrangements made between the Blair Government and Sinn Fein.

This was one element of a peace process, another element much like decommissioning and the procedure to recover the bodies of the Disappeared that happened offstage and out of sight.

The full disclosure, the photographs that were demanded on decommissioning, the publication of the inventories counting up the weapons and weighing the explosives – none of that happened.

And this is how things work and don't work in peace processes. You don't see everything. You aren't told everything.

But in the case of the on-the-runs process, there were footprints in the political sand.

And there was a trail that wasn't followed by those unionists who reacted angrily – not just in relation to Downey, but to the fact that around 200 letters had been sent to republican suspects.

There is a section in the Hallett review that sets out what was publicly said and known about the OTR process, some 29 pages of material in the public domain.

"Those who followed political affairs in Northern Ireland closely and knew where to look might have been alerted, therefore, to the existence of some kind of scheme," the report reads.

But, even before publication of this report, we knew there was a jigsaw of clues.

Nobody is suggesting they had all the pieces, but there was certainly enough to get a sense of the picture.

December 2000: The trail goes back almost 14 years when the first cases relating to republicans who escaped from Crumlin Road jail were reported as settled across various news outlets.

March 2001: I have a note in my diary which reads, "7 OTRs given early release by Sentence Review Commission, including Liam Averill and five Maze '83 escapers".

Averill was a high-profile case. He dramatically escaped from the Maze in 1997, walking out of the jail dressed as a woman after a children's Christmas party.

It came to be known as the "Mrs Doubtfire" escape (after Robin Williams' 1993 film of the same name) and, when Averill's OTR case was settled along with other escapers, I was interviewed on BBC Good Morning Ulster and there were reports on radio. This was on March 27, 2001.

Another significant jigsaw piece was found in the course of the Hallett Review.

March 2002: In the Dail, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave details of what he called the British Government's "administrative procedure".

"It involves checking each case through the administrations of justice and policing in Northern Ireland to ascertain the status of the case and whether it can be cleared," he said.

June 2002: Then, just a few months later, I reported that the Eibhlin Glenholmes case and "some dozens" of others had been settled. It involved the Northern Ireland Office responding to a request for information. They checked with the prosecuting authorities.

Already, there had been a review of the case by the Crown Prosecution Service, and the NIO confirmed Glenholmes was no longer wanted.

She had actually returned to Belfast in the summer of 2000, but it was two years later before details of her case were confirmed and reported.

And, many years later, under the banner headline, 'Victims post for IRA most wanted', the Belfast Telegraph reported that Glenholmes had been controversially appointed to the Victims and Survivors Forum.

July 2002: Further information was provided by then Secretary of State, John Reid. "Any inquiries received in relation to individuals wishing to establish whether they are wanted in Northern Ireland in relation to suspected terrorist activities have been communicated to the Attorney General, who has referred them to the prosecuting authorities and the police."

You can see in these events more than a decade ago how the jigsaw pieces could be fitted together. But the on-the-runs cases were never a premier league peace process issue.

OTRs never had the same attention and focus as decommissioning, demilitarisation, the Disappeared, the devolution of politics and policing, and the emptying of the jails. There was always something else – and not just in David Trimble's era.

February 2007: Just weeks before Paisley and McGuinness entered government together, the NIO moved to dismiss any suggestion of legislation to accommodate an amnesty for on-the-runs. But that was only part of what was said.

"OTR cases are considered by the PPS according to the tests for prosecution. Each case is considered individually on the basis of its particular facts and circumstances. There are no exceptions."

And, here, again was information pointing to an OTR process:

June 2007: In this newspaper, a few months later, reporter Chris Thornton produced the most detailed figures. They were provided by the Attorney General's Office, pointing to 194 cases. One fugitive was captured, stood trial and was cleared; 84 cases were settled; 75 remained wanted; and 34 were still being reviewed. The figures were updated again in the Eames/Bradley report of 2009.

There was never full disclosure, never every name, date and detail, but there was enough by way of information to follow a trail.

The learning in all of this is that the past needs a process. Victims need answers and help, and the past should be about people and not politics.

On the specifics of the OTRs there will be a probing now of two other cases in which letters were sent in error. But after months of review, and many pages of writing, nothing much has changed.

The politicians need to get back to the table on the unfinished business of flags, parades and the past.

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