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Tony Blair to be called before House of Commons IRA 'On the Runs' inquiry

NI committee fumes at former PM’s failure to appear

By Nevin Farrell

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been summoned to appear before MPs investigating the controversial so-called 'comfort letters' from the Government to on-the-run republican terror suspects.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has ordered Mr Blair to appear before it on January 14.

The committee chairman, Conservative Laurence Robertson, wrote to Mr Blair yesterday saying it had been nine months since he was invited to give evidence in public to MPs.

It comes a day after Mr Blair said his "commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere" meant it would be "challenging" for him to give evidence in person to MPs.

He added that he had nothing new to say, having given evidence privately to an earlier review led by Lady Justice Hallett. In response, Mr Robertson accused Mr Blair of being "extremely disrespectful" and said committee members were "particularly disappointed" that he been unable to "find an hour or so to meet us".

Mr Robertson later said: "We have questioned former Secretaries of State and the current Secretary of State; we have questioned the Chief Constable and former Chief Constables. I don't see why Mr Blair should not be prepared to come and talk to us and answer our questions. It is not the same to do it in writing; you can't tell body language, you can't get a good feel for what really went on."

A spokeswoman for Mr Blair said: "We have been carefully considering all the options previously proposed by the Committee, given they refused to accept written evidence along with the assurance that any subsequent questions would be answered."

The committee is examining a scheme set up under the Blair government at the request of Sinn Fein that saw about 200 letters sent to republicans assuring them they were not being actively pursued by the UK authorities.

The probe was triggered by the high-profile case of John Downey. He walked free from the Old Bailey earlier this year when his prosecution for the murders of four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing was halted by a judge after it emerged he had been sent one of the letters in error.

Parliament has the power to summon witnesses to appear before select committees. But its power to punish a private citizen for contempt if they fail to co-operate is untested in recent times - an issue that fell under the spotlight in 2011 when James and Rupert Murdoch were summoned.

The Commons has not punished a non-member since the 19th century and it last used its power to fine in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London.

Quote

"The Committee was particularly disappointed at a lack of response since its members have noted that you have been in the UK regularly over the past few weeks, but you have not been able to find an hour or so to meet us.

"The Committee felt that this was extremely disrespectful to the House."

Laurence Robertson MP

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