Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Trimble 'hurt' over OTR letters

Lord Trimble was first minister at Stormont's power-sharing administration from 1998 to 2002

A former first minister of Northern Ireland has said he felt hurt after being kept in the dark about the sending of letters to republican fugitives which assured them they were not wanted by police.

Under an administrative scheme drawn up during the peace process, more than 200 On The Runs (OTRs) were told by the Government that they were no longer sought for paramilitary crimes. The messages did not rule out future prosecutions if new evidence emerged.

Lord Trimble led the Ulster Unionist Party for a decade from 1995 and headed Stormont's first powersharing administration.

He said: "I was quite hurt by the fact that there we were, we had so many meetings with the Secretary of State, speaking to the Prime Minister and we approached those meetings in a candid manner, to find out that they were deliberately keeping something from us.

"There were no hints made or indications, l anguage was used in those conversations that led us to believe nothing was being done on the OTR front. Clearly the intention was to keep the information from us."

Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs have already heard that 95 of 228 republicans who received controversial messages from the Government have been linked to 295 murders.

The watchdog is conducting an inquiry into the process for dealing with so-called OTRs, republicans told that they were not wanted for crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

David Trimble, now a Conservative peer, gave evidence to the committee and said he did not have a good relationship with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) dating back to around the time of the Good Friday Agreement.

He claimed: "Most of the people there I held in contempt.

"We only got an agreement (in 1998) because they were excluded from the negotiations in the final week. We would not have had an agreement if the NIO had still had charge of the process."

He said his general approach was that cock-up was more likely than conspiracy but there were some suspicious circumstances, including an IRA raid on Castlereagh police station in Belfast to steal details about Special Branch officers which rocked the peace process in 2002

Lord Trimble added: "There is a huge issue of principle here and you cannot concede that there was any merit in terrorist campaigns.

"We are dealing here with a mature democracy where there were political means to resolve whatever grievances there might be.

"There cannot be in that situation a justification for terrorism. There is a clear distinction between the two and the distinction is that in a democracy there are channels that can be pursued politically and peacefully, there is no justification for politically motivated violence."

The OTR letters came to light in February when the trial of John Downey for the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing which killed four soldiers was halted because he had mistakenly received one of those letters when the Metropolitan Police were looking for him. Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.

Police in Northern Ireland have been heavily criticised for their handling of the case. Stopping the prosecution at the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Sweeney said sending the letter to Mr Downey had been a ''catastrophic'' mistake.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Matt Baggott apologised on behalf of the force following the judgment.

As well as the committee investigation, a judge is conducting another review. The inquiry, headed by Lady Justice Hallett, which was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron, is due to report in the summer.

Lord Trimble was MP for Upper Bann before he was elevated to the Lords.

He was first minister at Stormont's power-sharing administration from 1998 to 2002, much of his tenure marked by disagreements over IRA decommissioning.

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