Trimble denies knowledge of on-the-runs scheme
Former Northern Ireland first minister claims Sinn Fein used letters for disciplinary purposes
David Trimble: scathing about officials and the late Northern secretary of state Mo Mowlam. “I did not have a good relationship with the NIO,” he said. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
Letters given to republican on-the-runs were used by Sinn Féin to maintain “loyalty and discipline” in their ranks, former Northern Ireland
first minister David Trimble has claimed.
During an appearance before the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee yesterday, Lord Trimble said he had never known about the letters of comfort until the case involving John Downey, who was arrested last year over the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, emerged.
“It was the first I had heard of it, I must say I was quite shocked,” the former Ulster Unionist Party leader said, adding that he had met a succession of Northern secretaries and officials. “At no time was any hint dropped to us.”
The process had been controlled by Sinn Féin, who forwarded the names of the people who should get letters to the Northern Ireland Office, he told MPs, who are holding public hearings into the administration of the scheme.
“I think SF used them to keep loyalty and discipline amongst those persons.”
However, he did not question British attorney general Dominic Grieve’s decision not to appeal the ruling made by a British high court judge in the Downey case last February.
Mr Justice Nigel Sweeney ruled the Donegal man could not be prosecuted for the bombings because he had wrongly been told he was not wanted.
Downey had been told in a letter in 2007 that he was not wanted for questioning by British police – on the back of checks made by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
However, it emerged later he was still wanted by the Metropolitan Police in London for the Hyde Park attack.
“The problem is that Downey relied on that letter to his detriment. I fully understand why the attorney general didn’t appeal, because [Downey] had relied on that letter to his detriment,” said Lord Trimble.
Unionists had “made their concessions” during the Belfast Agreement negotiations in 1998 to those who had been convicted of, or faced trial for, offences committed during the Troubles, he told MPs. “The normal legal procedures should apply and that nothing special should be done, other than what we did in the agreement,” he said. “We were clear. . . all the other parties [bar Sinn Féin] were agreed that there should not be an amnesty.
“That is hugely important because if you have an amnesty you are conceding some degree of legitimacy to the violence,” he said, adding that the truth and reconciliation hearings held in South Africa are “generally seen as a failure”.
During one meeting with John Reid, who served as Northern secretary of state between 2001 and 2002, Lord Trimble said the Labour politician told a UUP delegation that one list given to the Northern Ireland Office included 20 “extraordinary” names.
‘Not known to police’
“Some names were not known to the police. Lord Trimble went on to say that in some cases going on the run was done by persons to resolve “personal problems”.
Questioned about his relationship with the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Trimble was scathing about officials and the late Northern secretary of state Mo Mowlam. “I did not have a good relationship with the NIO,” he said.
“Most people there I had contempt for, we only got an agreement [during the Stormont talks that led to the Belfast Agreement] because they were excluded from the negotiations – NIO officials and the secretary of state – in the last week.”