Fallout over OTRs report unlikely to bring down Executive

Hallett believes unionist politicians such as Peter Robinson should have known about the scheme

First Minister Peter Robinson speaks to the media outside the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, following the publishing of the Hallet review into controversial amnesties for on-the-run prisoners from Northern Ireland. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

First Minister Peter Robinson speaks to the media outside the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, following the publishing of the Hallet review into controversial amnesties for on-the-run prisoners from Northern Ireland. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 01:03

Lady Justice Hallett’s report can’t have made easy reading for First Minister Peter Robinson and all the other unionist politicians who insisted they never knew about the on-the-runs scheme. In February, Robinson threatened to resign over the on-the-runs controversy, a move that could have brought down the hard-won Stormont powersharing administration.

We seem to have moved away from such a crisis after Hallett yesterday published her 274-page report into the OTRs scheme.

The Labour British government and Sinn Féin cobbled the scheme together to deal with the “anomaly” of republicans who did not know whether or not they were wanted for paramilitary crimes in Northern Ireland and Britain. “Cobbled” is a fair description because, as Hallett observed, the scheme was “not designed, it evolved”. The OTRs scheme provided 187 republicans with official assurances they could return to Northern Ireland because they were not being sought for any paramilitary offences.

It is quite clear that Hallett believes unionist politicians such as Robinson should have known about the scheme. “There was sufficient information in the public domain to alert the close observer of political affairs in Northern Ireland to the fact that some kind of process existed,” she wrote. “The administrative scheme was kept ‘below the radar’ due to its political sensitivity but it would be wrong to characterise the scheme as ‘secret’.”

And on page 13: “Dozens of police officers, prison officers, officials and politicians must have known that some kind of scheme was in operation by which individuals received assurances that they were ‘not wanted’.” Here we have the clear implication that by his stated ignorance of the scheme, Robinson was not a “close observer of political affairs in Northern Ireland”.

To be fair to unionists, the British governments and Sinn Féin generally kept word of the scheme under the radar of the media. It is a term Hallett doesn’t use but she noted the elliptical way of doing business applied by British ministers, such as former Northern secretary Peter Hain, and their Northern Ireland Office officials. “There was little appetite to publicise details of the scheme unless pressed.”

It was all a rather equivocal approach to a subject that was no joking matter. Hallett acknowledged that fact by empathising with victims of the IRA who were kept in the dark on the non-prosecution commitments afforded to OTRs.

Robinson was annoyed yesterday but there was no talk of collapsing institutions and quitting Stormont. Instead, he asked: “What happens next?”

Well, for a start Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers yesterday repeated that the scheme, which operated from 2000 to March this year, was now over. But there were no commitments to rescind the existing commitments given to OTRs, as the First Minister sought.

The bottom line, as Hallett said, is that the scheme was not an amnesty and it was lawful, although unprecedented and flawed. Hallett did not profess to be an expert on the peace process but it is clear she is well-versed in realpolitik.She finished her conclusions with wise words: “I have found nothing which . . . should be allowed to undermine the peace process . . . No one should use my findings to make political capital. Those whose lives have been devastated by terrorism deserve better. They have suffered enough.”