A senior loyalist believes a document released by the British and Irish governments in 2001 proves his claim that an undeclared amnesty was agreed in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week, William ‘Plum’ Smith claimed the deal meant that anyone involved in the conflict prior to the 1998 agreement would not be prosecuted.
He said the understanding was endorsed on behalf of the Government by then secretary of state Mo Mowlam and covered loyalists, republicans, police officers and soldiers.
Now the loyalist, who was prisoners’ spokesman at the time of the negotiations, says his position is vindicated in a document released in March 2001.
That document was a statement by the British and Irish governments on the implementation of key aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, including decommissioning and demilitarisation, but also outlined the following position:
“The two governments also recognise that, with the completion of the early (prisoner) release scheme, there is an issue to be addressed about supporters of organisations now on ceasefire against whom there are outstanding prosecutions , and in some cases, extradition proceedings, for offences committed before 10 April 1998.
“Such people would, if convicted, stand to benefit from the early release scheme.
“The governments accept that ... it would be a natural development of the scheme for such prosecutions not to be pursued, and would intend as soon as possible thereafter to take such steps as were necessary in their jurisdictions to resolve this difficulty, so that those concerned were no longer pursued.”
Smith, a former prisoner who chaired the 1994 loyalist ceasefire news conference, said similar language and sentiments were being used in talks leading to the 1998 agreement, and applied not just to so-called on-the-runs and others facing prosecutions, but to “everybody — charged or not”.
“In 1998 this was across the board — everybody. This was the line in the sand,” he said.
And, on the basis of the 2001 document, he said it would defy logic to suggest otherwise.
“You could be awaiting trial on 10 murder charges, or facing extradition, or on the run (and) according to this (2001) document the charges would not be pursued. But if, on some hillside, if a weapon was found with your fingerprints on it or DNA, you would be prosecuted.”
He added: “I call therefore for the matter to be addressed.”
Government document adds weight to loyalist’s claims
This document that ‘Plum’ Smith is pointing to is not a smoking gun.
But the language of the 2001 statement certainly adds weight to what he is suggesting.
And he now wants the Government to explain itself and to say what that statement means and doesn’t mean.
Can it really mean — as Smith suggests — that someone being sought on multiple murder charges would not be pursued, while someone else could be prosecuted for possession of a weapon?
The big investigation at present is Operation Stafford, which is looking at paramilitary activity stretching from so-called punishment attacks to multiple murder and spanning a period both before and after the Good Friday Agreement. It is focused on the UVF, but not just on the terror organisation.
This investigation is going to go inside the dirty war — inside the Special Branch, looking at its handling of agents. And there are agents at the very top of the UVF.
So, Alex Attwood might well have a point. Is the real worry the possibility that, after the war, another informer could be exposed in one of these historical investigations?