Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Tony Blair aide told of pact on 'comfort letters' in 2008

Appointment: Glenholmes

The First Minister claimed that he was in the dark over deals given to IRA suspects on the run from the law – but the issue has been in the spotlight on a number of occasions in recent years.

Only two years ago unionists were furious when Eibhlin Glenholmes, once sought by police over a series of IRA terrorist offences, was appointed to the new Commission for Victims and Survivors.

The Belfast republican was once on Britain's 'most wanted' list, yet DUP anger was relatively muted.

The victims' body is part of the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, and it was reported at the time that Sinn Fein had asked the Northern Ireland Office for information about whether she was still being sought by the authorities before she returned to Northern Ireland.

At one stage Glenholmes had been wanted in Britain on nine warrants covering a range of offences including murder, attempted murder, firearms and explosives.

She spent years on the run before returning to Belfast to become part of the Sinn Fein leadership and working with republican ex-prisoners. Like John Downey, she also received an assurance that she would not be brought before the courts. While her appointment was controversial, there was no political crisis over her appointment to the victims' forum in June 2012.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said at the time: "It is important in choosing who should sit on a victims' forum that the commissioners take care not to inflict further hurt and pain on those who have already suffered."

TUV leader Jim Allister described it as "monstrous", while UUP MLA Tom Elliott said it was a retrograde step.

The issue was also raised in March 2008, after Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell – a key figure in the peace process – outlined the deal in his book, Great Hatred, Little Room.

He wrote about providing "letters that Sinn Fein could use to reassure the individuals concerned, that they could return to the UK without fear of arrest".

One of these very letters was used by Downey's defence.

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