The British government came under sustained pressure from Sinn Féin in 2000 to give immunity to republicans who were “on the run” for offences from before the Belfast Agreement.
Cabinet files released by the National Archives in London detail the considerable early discussions within the Blair administration about the problem which came to be one of the most controversial issues of the peace process.
Sinn Féin wanted a commitment from the British that there was no public interest in pursuing people who were suspected or convicted of offences prior to 1998. One of the people that Sinn Féin put forward on a list of “on the runs” (OTRs) was Rita O’Hare, a senior figure in Sinn Féin who had an arrest warrant for attempted murder outstanding against her.
In July 2000 party leader Gerry Adams wrote to Blair to say that of the list of 20 names he had forwarded just two had been resolved. “The situation is totally unsatisfactory and causing difficulties for me and for the process,” said Adams.
Later that month Adams met with Jonathan Powell, Downing Street chief-of-staff, and told the diplomat that he and Martin McGuinness had been “totally discredited with the IRA membership” and that further moves on decommissioning would be stalled until the issue was resolved.
During the discussions about how to handle the OTRs Blair wrote to his attorney general, Gareth Williams, to lobby in favour of Rita O’Hare. Blair said there was a public interest which differentiated her from others on the list of OTRs in that she was playing a “crucial and positive role in furthering the peace process” and was a key ally to Adams and McGuinness in preventing the IRA from returning to violence.
“I cannot over-emphasise how important the case is to the continuation of the peace process. While I understand the seriousness of the crime she was accused of in the early 1970s, I think it is incumbent on all of us to recognise the importance of ensuring the peace process stays on track,” he wrote. O’Hare died earlier this year.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told Blair in another meeting that he was concerned about people who had minor brushes with the law in the early 1970s and fled to the Republic, where they had gone on to be “highly respectable figures” but were wary of returning to Northern Ireland in case of outstanding charges.
The new cabinet files released show the very early stages of the OTR problem. The issue came to public prominence as a result of the case of John Downey, a republican charged with carrying out the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing that killed four soldiers. The prosecution of Downey collapsed in 2014 after it was discovered that he had been carrying a letter of reassurance and believed he was free to travel to the UK.
Blair’s government had tried to legislate to allow the IRA OTRs to escape prosecution for crimes for which they were wanted but this was opposed by other parties in the peace process. Instead Blair’s negotiators offered the republican movement a secret deal to grant OTRs immunity from prosecution via letters similar to the one Downey had. Unionists who agreed to share power with Sinn Féin in 2006 said they did not know of the OTR issue.
How to deal with crimes committed during the Troubles remains politically contentious decades later. Earlier this month, the Irish Government announced it was challenging the UK in the European Court of Human Rights over its controversial Legacy Act, which grants immunity from prosecution for those involved in Troubles-related offences if they co-operate with the UK’s new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.