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


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.

Robinson has demanded a full judicial inquiry into how these letters came to be written. Instead, however, Downing Street announced a “judge-led review” of the comfort letters issued in order to ensure none of them repeated mistakes of the type made in Downey’s case.

Massive distinction
There is a massive distinction between a judge-led review of the accuracy of the letters and a judicial inquiry into their provenance.

Durkan, who declared himself unaware, was also scathing of Sinn Féin on Thursday night, accusing them of publicly claiming to favour a holistic exploration of the legacy of the Troubles, while in reality privately prioritising the concerns of the on-the-runs over the rights of victims and the needs of Northern Ireland society generally.

While secretly lobbying Blair’s government for the speedy issue of letters of comfort to republicans suspected of crimes, Sinn Féin was publicly demanding prosecution of historical crimes for which soldiers, police officers or loyalist paramilitaries were the alleged perpetrators. The IRA claimed to be fighting a war during the Northern Ireland Troubles, but now insists that only the crimes of other combatants be investigated, while a de facto amnesty be put in place for many of its own fighters or suspected fighters.

Selective approach
Sinn Féin of course is not alone in its selective approach to how the legacy of the troubles should be “confronted”.

As the blogger Mick Fealty has pointed out on Slugger O’Toole, Peter Hain in his statement in Downey’s case spoke of how, in 2005, unsuccessful efforts were made to introduce legislation to supersede the administrative scheme. That legislation was strongly resisted by the Democratic Unionist Part and ultimately by Sinn Féin, probably because it suggested reciprocal arrangements for those in the British army or RUC who might otherwise still be subjected to investigation for historical crimes.

This week’s events have echoes of last November’s controversy when the North’s attorney general John Larkin called for an end to the investigation and prosecution of the crimes of the Troubles. The outcry from all the political parties in Northern Ireland at that time could at least be explained as efforts to mark out territory before the Haass talks began.

Haass has since come and gone without agreement on a structured means of how to examine and resolve the legacy of the Troubles for the criminal justice system and for victims. If these issues are not soon resolved in a comprehensive way, they will endure as time bomb under Northern Ireland’s cross-party system of government and pose a threat to its fragile peace.

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