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Tony Blair aide defends peace talks with terrorism suspect

By David Young

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 controversial Government scheme that saw letters sent to republicans on the run (OTRs) assuring them they were free 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. Explaining why he had told her not to return, Mr Powell said Ms O'Hare may have felt she had fallen into a trap if she was then arrested.

"The peace process would have been dead – it would have been a very bad idea," he said.

Mr Powell denied he had made justice a lesser priority.

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

"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," he said.

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