Belfast Telegraph

Soldiers' amnesty 'inevitable'

Calls for Bloody Sunday soldiers to be granted amnesty on the back of a deal for IRA on-the-runs are inevitable and predictable, a senior Northern Ireland politician has said.

Mark Durkan, Foyle MP for the nationalist SDLP, said it is no surprise former secretary of state Peter Hain is pushing the idea which he said was a direct result of selfish misdealing by Sinn Fein.

In a week when controversy over the OTR scheme threatened to pull down Stormont's devolved government, Mr Hain said it was clear for anyone who wanted to see that assurances given to IRA members were not get-out-of-jail cards, immunity or amnesty.

And with full details of the scheme now public, the Labour MP said it would be a waste of police resources to prosecute soldiers who killed 14 unarmed people at a civil rights march in Derry in 1972.

Scandal and political crisis over the handling of IRA OTRs was sparked when the trial of John Downey for the 1982 Hyde Park bomb spectacularly collapsed last week in London.

"Those who have stood over the scheme revealed in the High Court case have claimed that it doesn't imply an amnesty, and that everybody really knew everything about it," Mr Durkan said.

"Yet now, one of its authors is saying that the fact of the scheme should mean amnesty for everybody and anybody in relation to anything. We will also have others, including Tories and unionists rallying around such a demand.

"Sinn Fein know if others had really known about the 'Shinners' List', and letters having such import on a court case, those others would have then been demanding indemnity for the security forces too. That presumably was one of the reasons for key aspects of the scheme being hidden."

Mr Durkan said Mr Hain's position was clear in 2005 when he prepared legislation for an amnesty that was never enacted.

"I know that many families may be anxious and aggrieved by the inevitable and predictable line that has now come from Peter Hain, and will be pushed by others, but this is a consequence of Sinn Fein's selfish misdealing, which we will have to work hard to resist," the former SDLP leader said.

Mr Downey, 62, a Sinn Fein member and former oyster farmer who denies planting the Hyde Park bomb, returned home to Donegal where a planned homecoming party last night was cancelled.

He had wrongly been told by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) that he was not wanted for questioning or prosecution in the UK despite a Metropolitan Police warrant for his arrest for the murders of soldiers.

The case revealed the extent of an assurance scheme for OTRs and a deal the last Labour government struck with Sinn Fein that saw more than 180 individuals given letters similar to Mr Downey's, clearing their way to return home.

Another five cases involving IRA terror suspects are active.

Writing a first-hand account in the Sunday Telegraph of how the scheme came about, Mr Hain said it is risible for key politicians to claim they had no knowledge of the so-called comfort letters for on-the-runs.

He suggested that if a line was to be drawn on Northern Ireland's past it must include the pursuit of the Bloody Sunday paratroopers.

"Diverting police time to investigate Bloody Sunday soldiers or crimes from the Troubles seems a waste when the priority today should surely be tracking down the tiny, but dangerous, attacks from dissident IRA groups, as well as facilitating ordinary, plain community safety," Mr Hain said.

The political crisis centred on First Minister Peter Robinson who threatened to resign unless an inquiry was launched and letters to OTRs rescinded. A judge is examining the entire issue but the letters remain in place.

Part of the arrangement of letters to OTRs involved Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly giving names to the Government but ministers were not told who the individuals were. The PSNI checked records for evidence which could lead to an arrest or prosecution at the time or in the future and after a second background and security check the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) signed the letters.

The Attorney General confirmed the scheme was lawful, Mr Hain said.

While the majority of the cases were dealt with under the last government, almost 40 outstanding applications were taken on by the coalition Government when it assumed power in 2010.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams claimed the entire controversy around OTRs was a sham crisis.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claims the fact other republicans were denied letters - and told they would be arrested if they entered the UK - proves that assurances were nothing more than official confirmation that there was no evidence linking individuals to offences..

Unionists have dismissed claims they have been aware of the scheme for a long time after references in a number of public forums, reports and publications were released.

The crisis at Stormont compounded difficulties party leaders have had agreeing on stalled proposals for dealing with outstanding peace process issues, including the toxic legacy of the past, drawn up by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass.

Sinn Fein was not the only group to seek information on named individuals.

According to the judgment in the Downey case, an NIO briefing note from September 2002 recorded 162 names provided by Sinn Fein - 61 of whom were told they could return.

The document also stated that the Irish Government sought information on two people and the Prison Service information on 10.

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