OTRs is 'whipped-up controversy'
A "whipped-up" controversy around a government scheme to deal with on-the-run Irish republicans has inflicted unnecessary distress on victims, former No 10 chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell has claimed.
Mr Powell, who was Prime Minister Tony Blair's right hand man for ten years in Downing Street, told a committee of MPs that the reality of the administrative process that saw letters sent to around 200 individuals assuring them they were not wanted by the authorities was not the "murky deal" some had portrayed it as.
The top official in the Labour administration expressed concern about the potential impact of the furore, claiming the peace process in Northern Ireland was "still fragile".
"I do think there is a danger if an issue like this is played with for political ends," he said.
"I think the peace process is quite fragile, it can be destroyed if people try hard enough to do so, I hope it won't be."
Mr Powell played a key role in the negotiations with Sinn Fein, in the aftermath of the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, that resulted in letters being sent out, some even signed by him. Today he said the Irish government also put pressure on Mr Blair to deal with the issue of on-the-runs as part of efforts to get the powersharing institutions at Stormont set up.
But he told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the letters were much less contentious than the ultimately ill-fated bid by Mr Blair in the mid-2000s to legislate for on-the-runs who actually were wanted by the authorities in the UK - a move he conceded that would have provided those individuals with an effective amnesty.
The administrative process to send letters to those not deemed wanted was thrust into public prominence in February when the prosecution of Co Donegal man John Downey for the murder of four soldiers in the IRA's Hyde Park bombing collapsed because it emerged he had been sent one of the letters in error, when in fact police were seeking him.
It triggered a storm of controversy at Stormont, with Sinn Fein's political opponents denouncing the scheme as a secret side-deal that conferred 'get out of jail free' cards on terror suspects. Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson went so far as to threaten to resign over the affair.
In July, a judge-led review of the scheme order by Prime Minister David Cameron found that the administrative scheme was systematically flawed in operation but not unlawful in principle.
Lady Justice Hallett said a "catastrophic" error had been made in the Downey case, with potential mistakes in two other instances, but she insisted the letters of assurance did not amount to amnesties.
Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said the Government would no longer stand over the factual accuracy of the letters and said they were effectively worthless documents.
Mr Powell, giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's own inquiry, said a "most unfortunate" mistake had been made by police in the Downey case. But he insisted that did not mean the scheme itself was a mistake.
"I think that the victims of the Hyde park bombing have every reason to feel very very aggrieved because the trial failed," he said.
"I don't think that then applies to the whole scheme, the whole administrative scheme, because the administrative scheme, as I say, was to allow people to come back who weren't wanted, in the case of Downey he was wanted.
"Logically speaking this should not really impinge on other victims because this was not supposed to be about giving pardons or get out of jail free cards, as Lady Justice Hallett says, for people who committed those crimes, that's not what the scheme was supposed to be and wasn't, with the exception of that case and, as Lady Justice Hallett says, perhaps two others."
Mr Powell was asked to comment on previous evidence to the committee from a police commander that 95 letter recipients are linked, through intelligence, to around 300 murders during the Troubles.
He insisted intelligence did not constitute evidence.
"I am hoping that if there is evidence that people committed crimes they would not have received such letters, as mistakenly happened in the case of Mr Downey," he said.
"We can't go around suspecting people, I mean the way our justice system works is you are innocent until you are proven guilty and we can't go around saying 'there is some intelligence this guy did that or did the other' and try to paint them as guilty on that basis - that's not the way our system works."
Earlier, Mr Powell told MPs: "One of the things that I think Lady Justice Hallett brings out very clearly in her report is that there has been a lot of misunderstanding and misreporting about this scheme, which I think has been used to whip up sentiment and has been used to upset victims and I think that's a terrible shame because victims are the ones we should actually be thinking about, those who really suffered in these cases, and I think that's really regrettable that's happened.
"There was no deal in this case because we were never able to deliver on OTRs (through legislation).
"What we had offered to do was to solve the problem of all the OTRs - those that were wanted, not those that were not wanted.
"We failed to do that, we tried to pass legislation and that legislation failed, so there was no deal, murky or otherwise, and I think it really is verging on the irresponsible to try and use this to try and make the life of victims, who have already suffered enough, suffer more."
He added: "The reason this has caused a stir is really the way, as Lady Justice Hallett has said, it's been misreported and misrepresented, rather than the issue of the administrative scheme itself. Because if you think about the administrative scheme, it's allowed people to return who are not wanted, and that should not be something that should disturb relations between parties and governments."
The Old Bailey trial judge found that Downey's arrest in the UK last year, when he had been told he was free to return, represented an abuse of process.
Downey, 62, denied involvement in the 1982 attack.
Under the scheme, which started running in 2000, almost 190 republicans who had left the UK jurisdiction received assurances they were not being sought by British authorities.
A number who applied for assurances were not granted them because they were considered as wanted.
Mr Powell was he was surprised at Ms Villiers' remarks branding the letters as worthless.
"I was surprised and I didn't quite know what it meant," he said.
"I was surprised that was a gesture a politician would make, given you have to have relative balance if you are Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on these matters, but she may well have her own reasons for doing that that I am simply unaware of."
He said he was cautious about offering an opinion as he said those in government knew a lot more about issues than those outside it.