Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

On the run letters? Everyone knew... bar unionists, apparently

Horses lie dead on the street after the IRA's 1982 Hyde Park bombing
Horses lie dead on the street after the IRA's 1982 Hyde Park bombing
Bertie Ahern
Tony Blair
The trial of John Downey was halted after it emerged that he had received a 'letter of comfort'

Earlier this week I was contacted by Lady Justice Hallett's review into the issuing of "letters of comfort" to on-the-run (OTR) IRA and other terrorist suspects.

The contact was because it had picked up in the course of a trawl of documents an article I had written back in 2000 outlining efforts to have OTR offenders dealt with, if possible by having warrants for their arrest set aside.

I quoted Ella O'Dwyer, a former IRA prisoner and a spokesperson for the republican ex-prisoners group Coiste na n-Iarchimi, as saying there were "hundreds, rather than dozens, of cases involved", and Sinn Fein official Dominic Doherty confirming active discussions with the British Government.

Everyone knew this at the time. I and other journalists wrote about it and there was full knowledge, soon after, that police started checking through the names submitted to them by Sinn Fein to see if they were really wanted or not.

By 2005 jokes were doing the rounds, repeated by David Trimble, then Ulster Unionist leader, among others, that the authorities had never heard of many of the names submitted to them by Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein.

There isn't room to go into every mention, so I'll confine myself to a few. In March 2005 Bertie Ahern (below right), the Taoiseach, answered questions on this issue in the Dail.

Asked how the British Government, with which he was in negotiations, was dealing with it, he answered: "There is an administrative procedure which the British Government can follow, but it is quite lengthy. 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.

"The other option is legislation. It is probably likely that the British Government will continue to use the administrative system; I do not anticipate it introducing legislation in the short-term.

"The Prime Minister, Mr Blair (below), reiterated to me in Barcelona on Saturday that it was his intention to honour his commitment, irrespective of which way he chooses to deal with it."

That is clearly a description of the OTR letters scheme. As it happens, there was an attempt at legislation later that year, but it failed when most parties – including Sinn Fein, which balked at British soldiers benefitting – objected to a scheme to settle Troubles-era offences at a special tribunal, which would record a verdict but impose no penalty.

It was clear, though, that the system of letters was continued, as Mr Ahern had rightly predicted, and I remember writing about it. In 2007 the Belfast Telegraph, which I didn't work for at the time, published the results of a Freedom of Information request setting out the full state of play on letters.

"Another 84 OTRs have already been cleared to return to Northern Ireland without facing jail time, according to statistics released to the Belfast Telegraph by the Attorney General's office," journalist Chris Thornton reported in a lengthy article, revealing that 200 names had been passed to the Government.

The OTR letters were also mentioned in at least one court case – the trial of Gerry McGeough for the attempted murder of Sammy Brush, who is now a DUP councillor.

The 2011 guilty judgment reveals that McGeough had been refused clearance to return to Northern Ireland when his name was put forward by Sinn Fein under the scheme.

How can veteran unionists credibly maintain that the OTR letters were a complete surprise?

We need more frankness and openness about who knew what and when.

Preparing for failure is just not acceptable

Public cynicism and exasperated rolling of eyes seems to have set in before the fresh round of talks on flags, parading and the past even get under way.

People are calling them the "I can't believe it's not the Haass talks" talks, and predicting the same deadlocked outcome as last time.

It is a protective response to prepare ourselves for failure behind a hard-bitten mask of indifference.

That old Einstein quote is being wheeled out. You know the one where he defines insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

Yet there is no excuse for the party leaders failing to make progress this time, just because they have failed so often before.

They have embarked on these talks of their own free will and it is shameful for some of them to be lowering expectations even before the discussions have got under way.

Preparing the ground for failure is tantamount to announcing that they intend to waste their time and our money, which is paying for the whole thing.

Our politicians operate a lavish Rolls-Royce of a devolved legislature, with jobs for everyone and allowances coming out of their ears. If they cannot crack at least one of the issues, it will a disgraceful reflection on their abilities and integrity.

It will mark a dismal collective failure, which we should not be too quick to excuse, or explain away with a "seen it all before" collective shrug of the shoulders.

The parading season is already upon us and we badly need an initiative that can help it pass off more smoothly than last year.

An overall solution may be difficult, but a code of conduct for parades, voluntary at first, and a joint public statement that Parades Commission rulings should be obeyed would a good start, which could lay the foundations for further progress.

One politician blaming another for intransigence or opportunism is not good enough. Each of them knew the other's positions before they started this dialogue.

Each must be prepared to compromise in order to make good use of the narrow timeframe available. If they fail, the extra costs to police disorder and disagreement will come out of other budgets and the politicians must take responsibility for that.

Walking into talks only to walk out again after a period of grandstanding is not an outcome any of us should be prepared to accept.

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