Sharp divide over treatment of on-the-runs

Five further OTR cases still being considered by British government should be halted, insists DUP

John Downey: Emergency debate at Stormont  to discuss  fallout from court decision not to press ahead with action against Donegal man in connection with  1982 Hyde Park bombing. Picture: EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

John Downey: Emergency debate at Stormont to discuss fallout from court decision not to press ahead with action against Donegal man in connection with 1982 Hyde Park bombing. Picture: EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 14:59

The Northern Ireland Assembly has backed a DUP motion expressing outrage at secret British government deals with republican on-the-runs and calling on the government to “rebuild confidence and trust by conducting a judge-led inquiry”.

The emergency debate was held following First Minister Peter Robinson’s recalling of the Assembly to discuss the fallout from the court decision not to press ahead with an action against Donegal man John Downey in connection with the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

The DUP leader denounced the British government, claimed that letters of comfort it had sent to republicans were worthless, and insisted that only Sinn Féin and British ministers and officials knew of the secret deal.

However, he was angrily criticised by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, who demanded a full public inquiry rather than the judge-led administrative inquiry which will have fewer powers. He said this initiative, announced by David Cameron in Downing Street on Thursday, was little more than a “behind-closed-doors secret review”.


Heated exchanges
In the only genuinely heated exchanges of the debate, which saw threats from the speaker to discipline Mr Allister, the TUV leader accused DUP minister Arlene Foster of being on the run herself as he denounced the DUP for its role in what he called a “farce” and a “whitewash”.

Ms Foster angrily hit back, claiming it was her party which was pushing for the rights of victims and survivors of IRA violence. “Justice portrayed as a woman blindfolded with scales of justice,” she said. “Today she stands with her head bowed.”

She further vociferously dismissed Sinn Féin allegations that unionist anger over the on-the-runs was contrived for electoral purposes.

“This is real anger, not manufactured nor synthetic,” she said to roars of encouragement from the DUP benches.

Five on-the-run cases currently under discussion between the DPP and the Northern Ireland Office should be halted, she insisted. “They must immediately go, must be stopped immediately.”

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness insisted on the need for unionists and others to deal comprehensively with legacy issues from the Troubles. He accused “those opposed to the peace process” of “using legacy issues to chip away” at political progress.

He urged unionists to “move on from this artificial crisis”. Accusing them of “posturing” for the benefit of victims, he said the peace process was founded on strong leadership. “I will not walk away,” he said in an apparent criticism at Mr Robinson’s threat to resign over the controversy.

His colleague Gerry Kelly went further, accusing the DUP of “opposing everything” from the Belfast agreement itself, to the release of prisoners, the reform of policing, human rights measures, equality and even the Irish language.

Repeatedly shouted down, Mr Kelly read a standard letter sent to an on-the-run suspect and said he would place it in the Assembly library.

Alex Maskey, illustrating the state of relations between his Sinn Féin colleagues and the DUP, accused unionists of double standards in that they wanted IRA members to face a judicial process, but not those from the RUC or British army.

 

‘Dirty peace’
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said his party did not work to end what he called “a dirty war” to find themselves “in a dirty peace”. He called on the parties who took part in the Haass talks to re-engage.

Party colleague Alex Attwood insisted the British and Irish governments must be involved in renewed efforts to address the past.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt accused Sinn Féin of greediness, accusing the party of “risking the whole thing for 200 people [on-the-runs]”.

Alliance leader and justice minister David Ford stressed the on-the-runs scheme was devised and operated by the Northern Ireland Office and not his devolved department. “As long as I am Minister, this tawdry deal will not be anything to do with the Department of Justice,” he insisted.

l The text of the letter received by John Downey

“The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been informed by the Attorney General that on the basis of the information currently available, there is no outstanding direction for prosecution in Northern Ireland.

“There are no warrants in existence, nor are you wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charging by police. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not aware of any interest in you by any other police force in the United Kingdom. If any other outstanding offences come to light or if any requests for extradition were to be received, these would be dealt with in the usual way.”