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On-the-runs fiasco is a reminder of necessity to deal with the past

The decision by Prime Minister David Cameron to hold an inquiry into the letters sent to republican on-the-runs has staved off a potential meltdown at Stormont – and that is to be welcomed. So too is the announcement that the Secretary of State will be making it clear to those who hold such letters that they are not a once-and-for-all get-out-of-jail-free card.

If new evidence emerges of their involvement in pre-Good Friday Agreement terrorism, they could be prosecuted. The moot point, of course, is how hard will anyone look for that new evidence?

But the political brinkmanship of the past few days – with First Minister Peter Robinson threatening to resign if there was no inquiry – has at least crystallised some facts about this squalid deal.

While there is a debate about who knew what and when, the important point is that the deal was never transparent enough and certainly not widely known beyond the political elite. It was as if the public – and especially those bereaved by violence – did not matter. And, as the semantics go on about what the letters really mean, we share the view of the DUP that they were a virtual amnesty for the on-the-runs.

It is inconceivable that Sinn Fein would have been so naive as to accept anything less, even if it was all done with a nod and a wink. The republicans obviously felt the deal was sufficient for them to progress the peace process and keep the former activists happy.

The deal was obviously pivotal to swing Sinn Fein fully in behind the peace process. The irony is that if the details had been more transparent, perhaps the public would have accepted it.

After all, they accepted many unpalatable deals – like the early release of convicted terrorists – in the pursuit of peace. What is obvious now is that we cannot unpick what has happened.

The inquiry, which should report speedily, will be able to look at the deal in the round and we will be able to form a better judgment on it all when it reports. It may also clear up exactly who knew what and whether those who are now outraged at the deal simply missed all the clues that were lying around.

Why, for example, did no-one ever question why previously wanted men and women were suddenly appearing on the streets of Northern Ireland with seeming impunity?

But the abiding lesson from this episode is that our continued failure to deal with the legacy of the Troubles will come back to haunt us repeatedly.

Unionists say the political furore means the Haass recommendations on the past must go on the long finger and that inter-party talks on them cannot take place because of a lack of trust. Surely the imperative to deal with the past is now even greater than ever?

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