Belfast Telegraph

Were victims of Hyde Park bomb price of Tony Blair's vanity?

Book claims former Prime Minister agreed OTR scheme to secure legacy as peacemaker, says Malachi O'Doherty

John Downey got a letter that went down in history. He was a member of the IRA, convicted in the Republic in 1974. He knew that he could not travel to the UK without risk of arrest. The Metropolitan Police believed that he was one of the bombers who attacked Hyde Park on July 20, 1982, killing four soldiers.

The dead were 23-year-old Anthony Daly, 19-year-old Simon Tipper, another 19-year-old Jeffrey Young, and 36-year-old Roy Bright. But Downey's letter said, in effect, that he was in the clear.

It was delivered to him on July 20, 2007 - the 25th anniversary of the bombing. It was signed by a civil servant called Mark Sweeney and it told him that he was not wanted by any police force in the UK.

One has to wonder what Downey himself made of that letter. He did not suspect a mistake, though one had indeed been made. Other IRA activists, such as Rita O'Hare, had been denied such letters.

At least he acted as one who believed the implausible assurance implied in the letter, that the police had changed their minds about him. And that is because he read it not as a mere statement of the intentions of the police, but as an amnesty.

A shocking new book by the barrister Austen Morgan sets out the evolution of the scheme to let on-the-run (OTR) IRA members come home by sending out letters like the one received by John Downey in 2007.

In Tony Blair and the IRA, Morgan uses the court documents in the case of John Downey, when he challenged his arrest by waving that letter, to trace the history of that scheme back to negotiations between Tony Blair as Prime Minister and Gerry Adams.

Morgan shows that the goal of both men was to achieve a de facto amnesty for the OTRs. And that is what the OTRs thought they were getting.

Downey blithely set off to Gatwick Airport in May 2013 to take a holiday in Greece. He didn't even bring his letter with him to show any police officer who might not have got the message that he wasn't to be arrested. And he was.

That arrest led to the letter being produced in court, alongside a mass of documentation outlining the "administrative scheme" for OTRs. Morgan, a barrister, forensically traces through those documents what he regards as the corruption of the judicial process and the eagerness of Tony Blair to establish a legacy as a peacemaker.

Gerry Adams argued with Tony Blair after the Good Friday Agreement there was "unfinished business", in that IRA members on the run had to be provided with an amnesty that would allow them to go home.

This included people who feared that the police sought to charge them. It also included people who had escaped from prison. Unless they were granted some form of absolution, they were prone to arrest.

The agreement provided for prisoners in custody and those arrested afterwards to be released after two years, if their offences were committed before 1998 in pursuit of IRA objectives, or in the service of other paramilitary organisations which had committed themselves to the peace.

Morgan, in his book, argues that Adams and Martin McGuinness skilfully played their hand in negotiations against Blair and his Northern Ireland envoy Jonathan Powell.

Morgan's strength is in his legal training, but he is not coy about his contempt for Blair and the "so-called peace strategy".

For example, Jonathan Powell told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which oversaw one of the investigations into the OTR scheme, that he had perceived a real danger of the IRA going back to violence in 2006 and that measures had to be taken to secure the peace, that is to placate or appease them.

Powell told the committee: "At any stage, you could have tipped this back into war if you had taken a misstep."

Morgan trounces that argument. Was Powell really saying the IRA was still holding a gun to the head of the government after decommissioning in 2005?

Blair said: "Well, I did believe there was a chance of it collapsing."

Morgan's alternative theory for the legal contortions which produced the OTR scheme is that Blair needed to complete the peace process before stepping down as Prime Minister in 2007.

"Adams and McGuinness had a timescale of decades and a negotiating prize of the IRA escaping criminal punishment," he says. "Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell were not the hard men in that relationship."

He adduces that the pressure on Blair was not the intelligence that he was getting on a perceived threat from the IRA, but the pressure from Gordon Brown to step aside and give him the top job.

But here Morgan is speculating and his case is much stronger when he has facts at hand.

We know now, for instance, that the IRA was actually re-arming at this time, importing weapons from the US.

Morgan accuses Blair of interfering in the prosecution process without legal authority and making several legal judgments, for instance about the primacy of public interest in waiving prosecutions, that would have scuppered the OTR scheme had it been judicially reviewed at its inception.

He also appraises the collapse of a plan to legislate for an amnesty that would have applied to the police and Army, too. This made it unpalatable for the republicans, but British officials were also squeamish about the credibility of their Armed Forces if they were seen to be made equivalent to terrorists and above the law.

Blair's other big mistake was in failing to grasp the scale of the problem, imagining, at first, that only a handful of IRA members were on the run, waiting for reassurance from him that they could come home.

In the end, the number exceeded 200. Letters were sent to 187 IRA activists, telling them that the police were not planning to arrest them. Now, those letters seem not to mean very much, the scheme having been outed and then abandoned.

But John Downey read correctly the intention behind the letter he received. It was, technically, a statement that no prosecution was currently planned. In fact, it was the outworking of Tony Blair's intention that he not be prosecuted at all, whatever the evidence, because Blair thought that would better serve the public interest and keep the peace process on the rails.

Tony Blair and the IRA by Austen Morgan is published by The Belfast Press

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