Crux of problem in North is a society on the run from its past for too long

Opinion: IRA claims it was fighting a war but only wants the crimes of the other side to be pursued

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, speaks to media outside 10 Downing Street after talks with former British prime minister Gordon Brown in London in  2009. Photograph: Reuters

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, speaks to media outside 10 Downing Street after talks with former British prime minister Gordon Brown in London in 2009. Photograph: Reuters

Sun, Mar 2, 2014, 00:01

At the heart of the difficulties in which the Stormont Assembly and powersharing executive found themselves this week is the fact that Northern Ireland has been on the run from its past for too long.

On Tuesday, First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign unless David Cameron’s government launched a judicial inquiry into how Tony Blair’s government came to give letters of comfort to 200 republicans telling them that they were no longer wanted for alleged crimes committed during the Troubles.

Robinson’s posture (some might say posturing) arose in the wake of the collapse of the prosecution of Donegal man John Downey for alleged involvement in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing. The trial judge ruled that the continued prosecution of Downey amounted to an abuse of process, in circumstances where Downey had been given one of these letters of comforts.

Judge Sweeney’s lengthy judgment in Downey’s case is not only significant in criminal law terms but is political dynamite. Most politicians and the general public in Northern Ireland, Great Britain or here in Ireland knew nothing of these special arrangements for so-called on-the- runs.

Secret arrangements
Judge Sweeney set out in considerable detail how the secret arrangements between Sinn Féin and the Blair government came about. The Sinn Féin leadership regularly furnished Blair’s office with lists of names of republicans who wanted their status as suspects clarified.

This began a complex process involving the Northern Ireland Office, the attorney- general’s office, the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecution and the PSNI to establish whether the people in question were still wanted by the authorities. If they were not, the relevant letter of comfort was issued. Sweeney found that such a letter was issued to Downey, despite the fact that he was still wanted by the London Metropolitan Police in respect of the Hyde Park bombing.

This “catastrophic administrative error” meant, Sweeney concluded, the London authorities could no longer prosecute him for the offence.

Detailed statements
The evidence on which Judge Sweeney’s finding was based included detailed statements from some of those at the heart of this process, including Blair’s chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell and former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain. It is clear the scheme came into being on foot of a side deal between Tony Blair and the Sinn Féin leadership.

Among the fallout questions in Northern Ireland this week was whether Peter Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party had direct or constructive knowledge of the existence of this special scheme between Blair and Sinn Féin. Robinson denies all such knowledge. The former SDLP leader Mark Durkan may have been getting closer to the truth, however, on BBC Northern Ireland’s The View programme on Thursday, when he suggested that “some parties chose not to know”.

All the parties knew that the controversial issue of on-the-runs, although prominent in the various peace process negotiations, had not been dealt with in any of the written agreements. They must have known, or at least suspected, that some administrative blurring had been put in place on whether such persons would be prosecuted.

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