IRA letters: Despite the denials, at the heart of this remains a grubby, secret deal
FLANKED by a bemused looking Angela Merkel, David Cameron began to speak about Northern Ireland. As the Prime Minister interrupted his Downing Street Press conference with the German Chancellor to announce a judge-led inquiry into the secret letters row, you could almost feel the air go out of the balloon.
As one political insider told me: "It was the moment this turned from a political crisis into an everyday political row."
It followed another day of whataboutery, furious finger-pointing and political wrangling.
But despite the tidal surge of denials, posturing and attempted explanations, at the heart of the issue remains a grubby, behind-closed-doors deal with people linked to scores of terrorist atrocities.
Among those who faced the camera yesterday were many of the key figures from Labour and Sinn Fein who helped to secure that deal which ensured letters were sent to 187 on-the-run republicans – Jonathan Powell, Peter Hain, Gerry Kelly and Martin McGuinness.
Powell (right), Tony Blair's former chief of staff and a key figure in the peace process, was measured and calm as he questioned what the row was about. He said the whole basis of the argument was "misplaced".
Speaking about the tense political situation faced by the Labour Government in 2007, he said: "We'd tried legislation, we tried amnesties, we tried all sorts of things and we couldn't get them agreed," he said.
"The letters were something quite different, they were an administrative scheme to make clear to people that they were not wanted, that they were not being sought by the police forces so they could come back – they were a factual thing, not part of a political negotiation. I don't see why a letter to someone telling them they are not wanted for a crime is something relevant for anyone to know apart from the police and the people they are writing to."
Former Secretary of State Peter Hain went further, choosing to lecture the people of Northern Ireland, reminding us that we should be grateful about the deals done in private.
"Before politicians and pundits rush to vent their spleen with loose talk of deceitful deals let's just keep one fundamental truth to the fore. Northern Ireland today is light years from where it was," he said.
Sinn Fein was also playing down the whole controversy. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly insisted that all political parties in Northern Ireland were aware of a scheme informing terror suspects they were no longer being pursued.
After meeting Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, the Deputy First Minister said: "All the political parties knew it and I think that the contribution to the Policing Board meeting in 2010 from Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris is very revealing in terms of the amount of knowledge people knew." But despite the relentless spinning there can no doubt that Sinn Fein saw the 187 letters as effective get out of jail cards for republicans, a gift from Labour to secure their ongoing support for a peace deal.
We know from Justice Sweeney's court judgment this week that Gerry Adams told Tony Blair that it would be better if this process was "not visible". But the collapse of the trial of Hyde Park bombing suspect John Downey has thrust the whole tawdry deal into the public spotlight and the outpouring of public anger should have embarrassed those behind it.
The current coalition Government is also culpable because it signed off 38 of these letters on its watch. This is the context which led Peter Robinson to threaten to resign this week and forced David Cameron to appease his anger by appointing a judge to lead a review into the republican paramilitary suspects who were given assurances that they were not being sought by police.
At first glance it seemed like a great victory for the First Minister, and he could hardly contain his satisfaction as he withdrew his resignation threat at Stormont last night.
But following the intervention of the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, has anything actually changed?
True, Mr Robinson has secured an inquiry of sorts, but nothing more. His initial demand for the letters to be rescinded seems to have been dropped, indeed it is doubtful if this would even be legally possible.
Last night he declared that he had received an assurance from Ms Villiers that any new evidence which emerges against any of the suspects would lead to their cases being examined again. But this is merely underlining the principle already established in the Downey (right) case, set out clearly in Justice Sweeney's court ruling this week.
Worse was to come for the DUP when the Secretary of State confirmed last night she would not be contacting the 187 recipients of the letters individually, but merely making a public commitment that they should be aware their circumstances would change if new evidence emerges against them. It made it all too easy for Jim Allister to accuse the First Minister of buckling.
The DUP has stuck fast to its point all this week that it was never told about the secret letters.
It is right to be angry over this. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that maybe it could have found out earlier if it had asked more questions about a process which should have been on the edges of its awareness.
It was certainly aired publicly on several occasions. Twice in briefings from senior officers at the Policing Board, where three DUP MLAs were in attendance.
The Belfast Telegraph attempted to contact the DUP's Tom Buchanan, who raised the issue of OTRs at the 2010 meeting, but he did not return our calls. Party colleague Jimmy Spratt said he did not want to make any comment regarding the meeting.
Peter Weir did reply, pointing to the fact that there was never any evidence of the sending of 187 letters to republicans given to them.
Despite this week's furore, the issue of amnesties and pardons is not new, with this newspaper extensively reporting previous interventions, including a number in the name of Her Majesty.
This newspaper carried documented evidence of the Royal Pardons being granted to so-called on-the-runs (OTRs) back in April 2010.
Just weeks previously, former Secretary of State Shaun Woodward had denied any secret deal, dismissing the claims as "complete nonsense".
They were highlighted by the case of republican Gerry McGeough in 2010, and a decade earlier in the case of four IRA men.
McGeough revealed dozens of OTRs had been told they were free to return to Northern Ireland.
Issued in the name of Her Majesty the Queen, the letter obtained by this paper stated that an unnamed republican had been pardoned and remitted from a sentence of imprisonment imposed on him.
The use of Royal Pardons had also been widely reported in the case of four IRA men in 2000.
The men escaped from prison in Belfast and were granted special dispensation by the Queen to return to Northern Ireland.
The Royal Prerogative of Mercy given to Angelo Fusco, Robert Campbell, Paul Patrick Magee and Anthony Gerard Sloan meant they were free from any risk of prosecution.
They had been convicted of the murder of an SAS soldier in north Belfast in 1980.
The move endorsed an announcement made by then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson earlier in 2000 that convicted terrorists living outside Northern Ireland would not be pursued.
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 over her appointment.
The clues were certainly there. But, it seems, nobody asked the right questions.
10 people believe to have received letters:
O’Hare is currently the General Secretary of Sinn Fein. She was arrested in Northern Ireland in 1972 for the attempted murder of British Army Warrant Officer Frazer Paton who was targeted in Belfast the previous year. O’Hare fled to Dublin while on bail. Following a three-year sentence for smuggling explosives to the IRA she was released in 1979.
He escaped from the Maze while dressed as a woman in 1997. He had been serving life for shoting dead two Protestants in 1994. In 2000, while still on the run, he was awarded £5,000 by the European Court of Human Rights because he was not given a lawyer for 24 hours after his arrest.
Caulfield is said to be living in Monaghan.
He was named in the House of Commons by DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson as being wanted in connection with the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing which killed 11 people in 1987.
He once topped the ‘most wanted’ list for suspected terror offences. In the 1980s, Glenholmes was at the centre of a high-profile extradition battle. She was wanted in Britain in connection with offences including murder, attempted murder, firearms and explosives. She was released by an Irish court, which concluded the extradition warrants were defective.
Glenholmes, who was never convicted of a terrorist offence, spent years on the run.
Finucane masterminded the 38-man mass breakout from the Maze in 1983 along with his brother, Seamus. Had been serving 18 years for explosives offences. He initially fled to the US with Artt. Later arrested in Ireland and successfully fought extradition attempts. Brother of Pat Finucane, a solicitor, murdered in 1989.
He also escaped from the Maze in 1983.
Had been serving a 16-year sentence for possessing explosives. He fled to America and created a new identity, working as a carpenter in San Francisco. While there, he married an American woman. He was deported to Ireland in 2009.
KEVIN BARRY ARTT:
He escaped from the Maze during a mass IRA breakout in 1983. He had been convicted of the murder of the prison’s deputy governor, Albert Miles, who was gunned down in front of his wife. He fled to the US and was caught by the FBI in 1992.
Artt escaped extradition after the US ruled his claims of unfair conviction in Northern Ireland must be investigated before sending him back.
The former Sinn Fein national executive member was sentenced to six years in 1976 for possession of rocket launchers. He escaped during a huge explosion at Dublin’s Special Criminal Court. In 2001 he was detained in Colombia. It was claimed he had been sharing bomb-making intelligence with Farc geurillas. He was found guilty of travelling on a false passport but fled and cannot be returned to Colombia.
Was awaiting trial over a suspected IRA assassination plot when he escaped from HMP Brixton in 1991. Using a gun hidden in a shoe, he shot a passer-by. He was arrested in the Republic for firearms offences in 1993 and jailed for four years. He was released early in 1996 and successfully fought attempts to extradite him in 2000, arguing he would have been freed by July 2001 under terms of Belfast Agreement.
He was an election agent for IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Carron fled to the Republic after being caught in possession of an AK-47 rifle in 1986. He had been granted bail to contest a by-election in Fermanagh but fled when he lost. The Irish Supreme Court ruled he could not be extradited over a “political offence”. He went on to work as a builder and a teacher.