Belfast Telegraph

Dirty deal where end justified the means for ex-PM

By Liam Clarke

The old magic was still there when Tony Blair spent two hours being quizzed by the Northern Ireland Select Affairs Committee. The scheme was a mess, something that grew like topsy, and which, he readily admitted, should have been corrected but nobody really landed a glove on Mr Blair.

His best line came at the end in reply to Ian Paisley. "Left to the DUP in 1998, we would have had no Belfast Agreement... we would never have had a peace agreement."

It is a comment which has the virtue of being undeniably true - the DUP urged a "no" vote and, when they did go into government with Sinn Fein, they negotiated a new agreement at St Andrews to distance themselves from the earlier document.

Mr Blair was stating the obvious. He covered himself by saying he recognised it had been a matter of principle and saying how much he admired Mr Paisley's father.

That doesn't, however, mean that the DUP didn't benefit from the deal and the subsequent manoeuvrings like the chaotic OTRs scheme.

They didn't agree with early prisoner releases but it provided one of the bases for them to enter government. "Don't blame us, we never agreed to this but we need to make it work now and to get what changes we can."

Mr Blair repeatedly argued that if he had taken the OTRs issue "off the table", Sinn Fein would have walked and peace might have fallen through.

It is hard to believe that the IRA campaign would still be going today but violence could well have been prolonged and the dissidents given the sort of opportunity they needed to recruit disillusioned republicans.

Sinn Fein couldn't afford to sell out former IRA members, because so much of Sinn Fein was made up of former IRA members and their families. Saying, at that stage, that they were going into politics and former colleagues still sought by the security forces could take their chances would have been presented as treachery.

In "Charlie", RTE's new mini-series Charles J Haughey, the former Taoiseach asks Sean Doherty, his Justice Minister, not to tell him anything which would embarrass him. Just do what was necessary. There was at times that sort of "don't ask don't tell" feeling about the OTRs scheme.

Mr Blair accepted that politicians, like Lady Sylvia Hermon and Ian Paisley, did not know about the scheme if they said they didn't, but he repeatedly hinted that they should have asked. In her recent report on OTRs, welcomed by the DUP, Lady Justice Hallett described the scheme as 'sensitive' rather than secret, a point which Mr Blair returned to repeatedly.

There were about 200 on-the-runs, republicans who felt they would be arrested if they came back to the UK. In many cases they were wrong.

Mr Blair tried to reduce the numbers by having the RUC go through the records so that the NIO could write to Sinn Fein telling them which individuals were liable to be arrested. "We had never heard of half of them," said one police officer.

It is very questionable if people should have been warned off coming back when there was evidence of serious crime. An attempt at legislation, the Northern Ireland Offences Bill, fell through when the SDLP pointed out that British soldiers who shot civilians could benefit. Sinn Fein then withdrew support.

These circumstances are so unusual that we are not going to learn many lessons, beyond the general need for transparency. It was a piece of realpolitik which is unlikely ever to be repeated, and it closed in 2012 anyway. The task now is to review the letters so that any which were issued in error can be recalled. As Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, told the committee last year, they are not of much value anymore. It would be nice to know who got them though.

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