Some republicans on the run warned never to return

A new row could erupt over jail threats hanging over some on-the-runs

Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly MLA at Stormont yesterday after a meeting with Northern Secretary Teresa Villiers

Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly MLA at Stormont yesterday after a meeting with Northern Secretary Teresa Villiers

Fri, Feb 28, 2014, 01:00

The issue of the on-the-run republican paramilitary suspects has been a longstanding problem which the British and Irish governments have tried to resolve in order to placate Sinn Féin without upsetting unionists.

It’s been a difficult balancing act. This week it almost served to force the resignation of First Minister Peter Robinson, bring down the Assembly and trigger Stormont elections. The intervention of British prime minister David Cameron with his promise of an inquiry into the issue appears to have defused that crisis, but for a while it was touch and go.

Since the 1998 Belfast Agreement getting a deal on the on-the-runs has been a high priority for Sinn Féin, as Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness made clear yesterday.He took issue with the words “amnesty” and “immunity” that have been used to describe the non-prosecution scheme that applied to more than 180 republican on-the-runs. But, in doing so, you couldn’t help but wonder was he, in trying to put out one political bushfire, inadvertently starting another.

He contended that the majority of those who availed of the scheme did so because the PSNI and Public Prosecution Service had formally established that they didn’t have prosecutable cases to answers.

‘No charges’
“A very important part about this issue is that those names that were put forward, those people were told no charges could be proceeded with or brought against them,” he said.

“There were also another smaller number of names that people were told that charges would be proceeded with if they returned to the North. So I think that information blows out of the water this argument of amnesty or immunity or get out of jail card.”

McGuinness then went on to tell reporters after meeting Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers how one of Sinn Féin’s most senior officials, Rita O’Hare, who is free to travel regularly to Washington and runs the party’s US desk, cannot travel from Dublin to her native Belfast. It is understood that the case against her goes back to the 1970s. Another senior republican in that category is Owen Carron, who was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone after MP Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in 1981. He cannot enter the North because he faces a firearm possession charge.

One of those able to return is Eibhlin (Evelyn) Glenholmes who in the 1980s was a high-profile republican wanted on IRA extradition warrants. She has her letter of comfort and is now back in the North and a member of the Forum for Victims and Survivors.

The curious thing that emerges from McGuinness’s comments is that not only were “comfort letters” issued to more than 180 republicans who could return but that letters, in effect, of “discomfort” were also issued to republicans.

In other words they were officially told, don’t come back because the PSNI will nail you.

Politicians are so preoccupied with the on-the-runs who could come back, that this issue hasn’t yet generated a political row. There is potential now, however, for this information to start political trouble on another front, illustrating just how thorny this issue has been for the two governments, and primarily for London.

The actual Sinn Féin demand for an on-the-runs scheme goes back to the late 1990s after the 1998 Belfast Agreement. By 2002, Sinn Féin had made applications for 161 republicans to be given guarantees they could return without fear of prosecution with 61 told they could safely return.

Armed campaign
The scheme was halted in 2004 but it was reactivated after the IRA formally ended its armed campaign and decommissioned its weapons in 2005. There was then an attempt to introduce legislation but this collapsed after the SDLP joined unionists in opposing the Bill because it would also apply to RUC officers and British soldiers.

It was then that the British government returned to its publicly undeclared scheme of dealing with the on-the-runs. The system worked through Sinn Féin providing names to the Northern Ireland Office which forwarded them to the British attorney general. He sent them to the North’s Director of Public Prosecutions who passed them on to a dedicated PSNI team.

At the end of the process, a full report was sent to the DPP. The final decision would be notified to the attorney general and Northern Ireland Office, who would then pass on the information to Sinn Féin.