Comfort letters to on-the-runs openly discussed – Campbell
There was ‘considerable debate and coverage’ about the issue
It was a key issue in the negotiations that led to the joint declaration in 2003, says Alastair Campbell. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES
Former British government press secretary Alastair Campbell has said the issue of allegedly secret letters to republican on-the-runs was openly discussed in all-party negotiations after the Belfast Agreement.
Mr Campbell said he had no specific knowledge of the case of John Downey, whose case in relation to the 1982 Hyde Park bombing collapsed after it emerged he had been sent a government letter in 2007 indicating he was not being pursued by UK authorities.
“As a part of negotiations in 2001, the British and Irish governments explicitly stated they were seeking a solution to the issue and said so in a letter to party leaders,” said Mr Campbell, author of The Irish Diaries (1994-2003), an insider account of Anglo-Irish relations.
‘Early release scheme’
“It was a key issue in the negotiations that led to the joint declaration in 2003. The British government set out in a separate paper proposals to legislate so that cases of
on-the-runs could be considered in a judicial process, which if the person were found guilty would lead them to qualify . . . for the early release scheme established in 1998.
“On that basis legislation was introduced to parliament in 2005, the legislation was withdrawn in 2006, in the face of opposition . . . and no party could have been unaware that the issue was central to securing the decommissioning of the IRA weapons,” he said.
“The issue of the so-called on-the-runs as far as I remember was not part of the Good Friday agreement, but it was raised in subsequent negotiations which followed and at every stage as I remember it there was considerable debate and coverage about it,” he added.
“You look at any peace process . . . you will find bits of it that one side likes and bits of it that one side doesn’t like. It would be a tragedy if . . . in this Downey case, a misunderstanding, if the whole thing came crashing down.”