Cameron chooses not to criticise Blair deal
British prime minister does not want to question ‘difficult decisions’ on letters of comfort
First Minister Peter Robinson at Hillsborough Castle for a meeting with Secretary of State Teresa Villiers. Photograph: Aiden O’Reilly/Pacemaker
A British government-ordered inquiry into the operation of rules which gave IRA members a guarantee that they were not then wanted for prosecution, will report by the end of May, just after the European and Northern Ireland local elections. Significantly, British prime minister David Cameron has not questioned the judgment made by Labour prime minister Tony Blair when he agreed to giving the letters of comfort – even if one of them was wrongly issued to John Downey.
Earlier this week, the Central Criminal Court in London ruled that Mr Downey, who had travelled frequently to Northern Ireland and Britain from his Donegal home after he got his letter, could not be prosecuted. Mr Downey (62) had always denied that he was part of the IRA team that planted a car bomb in Hyde Park in July 1982 that killed four soldiers – one of the most well-remembered atrocities of the Troubles.
Following the disclosure that 38 of the letters were issued after he came to power in 2010, Mr Cameron made clear that he had “inherited a process” where letters set out “the factual position” on whether people were wanted for questioning or not.
“This process continued under this government. There was never any question of amnesty, and there isn’t now,” he said, before he quickly announced that a judicial inquiry into the scheme’s operation will be headed by a judge.
Government papers will be given to the inquiry, which will be held in private. Ministers will also meet the judge. Former ministers and officials will be requested to attend, but will not be compelled to.
“The dreadful mistake was for Mr Downey to be sent a letter that he was not wanted for particular crimes, when he still was,” said Mr Cameron. “That was such a dreadful mistake that we need to be absolutely sure that other letters were not sent in error.”
However, he would not question Mr Blair’s actions before, during or after the Belfast Agreement: “Very difficult decisions were taken . . . As an incoming prime minister I do not want to unpick or call into question all the difficult decisions that were made. I want to be a prime minister who helps deliver devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, continued peace and progress in Northern Ireland, but I want to be absolutely clear to people that these letters were not, and should be not be, any form of amnesty.”
The terms of reference for the inquiry will allow a still-to-be-named judge to “produce a full and public account of the operation and the extent of the administrative scheme for on-the-runs”. The judge, who will sit in private, will also have powers to make “recommendations as necessary on this, or related matters”, but he will not have freedom to question the policy set by Mr Blair.
Mr Cameron’s announcement of an inquiry came after Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers had outlined its scope in a meeting with Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, who had threatened to quit over the controversy.
All of the letters that were issued, some 200, will be reviewed and errors would be corrected. “We don’t want this to escalate into a full-blown political crisis in Northern Ireland,” Mr Cameron added “Clearly with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been much better to have an open discussion at an earlier stage with Peter Robinson and his administration on this legacy system that had been set up many years ago by the previous Labour government,” he said.