Belfast Telegraph

Ex-adviser defends O'Hare meeting

Tony Blair's former top adviser has defended his decision to meet with an on-the-run republican terror suspect as part of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.

Jonathan Powell said holding talks with "distasteful" people was often necessary to broker deals as he explained his encounter with senior Sinn Fein figure Rita O'Hare in Dublin more than 14 years ago.

Ms O'Hare, Sinn Fein's representative to the United States, is one of the most high-profile fugitive republicans, having skipped bail to the Irish Republic in 1972 after her arrest in connection with the attempted murder of a soldier.

Mr Powell was giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into the contentious government scheme that saw letters sent to on-the-run republicans assuring them they were able to return to the UK as the authorities were not seeking them.

Ms O'Hare was unable to obtain one of the letters as she is still subject to an outstanding arrest warrant.

Mr Powell was also quizzed on a comment he had made during a meeting with Sinn Fein to the effect that Ms O'Hare should not travel to Belfast as it might result in her arrest.

Conservative committee member Oliver Colvile questioned why he had not asked that Ms O'Hare return to Northern Ireland to go through due process.

Explaining why he had told her not to return, Mr Powell said: "Had she come back, been arrested feeling she had fallen into a trap by me trapping her into coming back, the peace process would have been dead - it would have been a very bad idea."

Mr Powell, who said Ms O'Hare was a strong supporter of the peace process, denied he had de-prioritised justice.

"I am not saying that justice is less important but you have to come up with a balance in a negotiation," he said.

"In the Good Friday Agreement we had provisions on releasing prisoners, I find that extremely distasteful to release prisoners after only two years - people who had murdered people - but it was a necessary part of the agreement, it's a balance of an agreement.

"You can't have a peace agreement that's a la carte, where you choose one bit and not choose the other bit, you have to balance things up and that's what we were trying to do."

He added: "There are very difficult balances that have to be made between victims getting justice and trying to get to peace, so there are no more victims.

"What we did in Northern Ireland was very difficult, we had to make decisions, things like releasing prisoners, things that were very distasteful, but in the end those are the sort of balances you have to make if you want to make a lasting peace."

Mr Powell said he did not regret meeting Ms O'Hare.

"Rita O'Hare was part of the Sinn Fein delegation, who was negotiating with us on peace," he said.

"I met with a number of distasteful people in the course of making a peace process, on both sides, but that is necessary.

"If you are going to make peace you can't just meet nice people."

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