A top civil servant carried out extraordinary ‘arrests’ as part of a secret scheme to allow on-the-run IRA men to come back to Northern Ireland.
Douglas Bain, who was then a senior official in the Prison Service and is now the Stormont Assembly’s commissioner for complaints, took on the powers of a prison officer to formally detain republican fugitives on Christmas Eve in 2000.
The revelation is contained in a Northern Ireland Office briefing paper released to MPs as part of their inquiry into the controversial government process that sparked a crisis at Stormont.
The document, written in September 2002 by associate political director William Fittall, states that Bain met the men — who were escaped prisoners — by appointment and then placed them under arrest.
The IRA men, who would have been due early release under the Good Friday Agreement, were then handed temporary release forms to fill in.
The Sentence Review Commission, which decided if paramilitary prisoners could be freed early, had already indicated that their applications would be approved if they came back to Northern Ireland.
The ‘on-the-runs’ are not identified, but three months later Sinn Fein claimed: “Eight republicans who escaped from British jails have been given amnesty by the British government and will be allowed to go home. None of the eight will be prosecuted for escaping from custody.”
The newspaper then named 1983 Maze Prison escapers, including Dermot McNally, Seamus Campbell and James Clarke.
Convicted double killer Liam Averill, who tricked his way out of the Maze in 1997 dressed as a woman, was another listed, as was Patrick McIntyre, who had been on the run since 1986.
The NIO paper — parts of which have been redacted — details ongoing contacts between the government and Sinn Fein between 1998 and 2002.
It’s understood that it was part of material from the trial of John Downey, the Donegal man who was charged with the Hyde Park bombings, but was cleared after he produced a letter from the NIO.
Titled ‘OTRs — A Brief History of Crime’, the document states “...ever since 1998, the Provisionals have been chiselling away, exploiting their leverage over decommissioning to advance their objectives”.
Fittall writes that between then and July 2000 “the Provisionals’ key objective through this period was to ensure that the lack of decommissioning did not get in the way of implementing the early release provisions contained in the Good Friday Agreement”.
He states that in late 1999 Gerry Adams told the Prime Minister that “there were about a dozen OTR cases”.
In May the next year, Sinn Fein gave the government a list of 36 names and then five more.
They ranged from IRA prisoners who had escaped to individuals who believed that they were wanted for arrest.
The first cases were resolved in June 2000 — and in September then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson said publicly that the government would no longer pursue the extradition of escapees.
The first fugitives only returned at Christmas, when they met Douglas Bain by appointment.
In March 2001, Sinn Fein produced another list of names, bringing the total to 162. The Prison Service found 10 more and the Irish Government put forward two cases.
At the Weston Park talks and in the run-up to the IRA’s first act of decommissioning in 2001, Sinn Fein secured public commitments from Tony Blair that he would sort out the on-the-runs issue by the end of March 2002.
But NIO officials recognised that would need legislation, which they feared would be rejected by Parliament.
The document states: “The main focus over the last year, however, has been how to implement this very difficult commitment without driving the unionists off the field and also generating unmanageable waves at Westminster and throughout the country.”
Privately, the government began drawing up an ‘Immunity from Prosecutions Bill’, but the Secretary of State warned that publishing it “would derail the process”.
As the March deadline given to Sinn Fein loomed, Tony Blair came under pressure in the House of Commons to reveal his plan — “including a number of attempts to flush something out from the Prime Minister at Wednesday questions”.
“The remarkable thing throughout this whole saga is the extent to which we have been able to say so little in public,” the document states.
It adds: “Until recently, we have not even had to say very much
about the case by case reviews. It was only on July 1 that we finally had to answer a set of PQs [parliamentary questions] which made it impossible not to be a little more forthcoming.”
Looking ahead, the NIO paper states that Sinn Fein will continue to “nurture the issue as yet another grievance”, but admits that “they have a point in claiming that on a number of cases, promises have outstripped delivery”.
The official concedes that an Amnesty Bill could be rejected or “mauled out of all recognition by the House of Lords”, while a revised scheme, where on-the-runs faced a trial before being released “is a touch less hairy”.
He said that the time was not right for Parliament to “swallow something quite so indigestible”, adding: “If people could be reasonably satisfied that the IRA was really moving into retirement, that would be another matter.”
An NIO spokesperson said: “We have co-operated with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee throughout their inquiry. It would not be appropriate to comment on individual documents that have been released.”
INQUIRIES PROBE SCHEME
The document was unearthed during one of two inquiries into the on-the-runs scheme.
MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs committee have heard evidence from a number of senior figures, including former Secretaries of State John Reid and Peter Hain, and former Chief Constables Sir Ronnie Flanagan and Sir Hugh Orde.
They also quizzed the current and former Attorneys General and representatives of victims’ groups.
Meanwhile, Lady Justice Hallett is about to announce the findings of her separate inquiry, which was ordered by the Prime Minister.
She is due to present her report on Thursday, after which the Secretary of State will make a statement to MPs.
No date has been set yet for the MPs to publish their findings.