On-the-runs inquiry has no power to query Blair’s role

Peter Robinson withdraws threat to quit as letters are ‘fairly worthless’

Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and MLA Gerry Kelly pictures at Stormont  after a meeting with secretary of State Teresa Villiers. Photograph: Pacemaker

Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and MLA Gerry Kelly pictures at Stormont after a meeting with secretary of State Teresa Villiers. Photograph: Pacemaker


The judicial inquiry into the decision to tell up to 200 IRA members if they were wanted for prosecution in the UK will not have powers to investigate former British prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to offer the concession in the finalisation of the Belfast Agreement.

The crisis that built up this week had led Northern Ireland First Minister, Democratic Unionist Peter Robinson, to threaten to resign.

But he withdrew his threat to resign last night, claiming that in his view the letters were now “a fairly worthless piece of paper”.

Claiming victory, he said he was satisfied with the inquiry offered to him by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, in Stormont yesterday, even though London will not rescind the letters, as he had demanded.

The crisis was prompted by the central criminal court’s decision in London to rule that John Downey could not be prosecuted because he had, wrongly, been given a letter by the Northern Ireland Office telling him he was not wanted.

Paramilitaries who had been convicted before 1998 were released within two years, while those convicted since for any offence have never served more than that time. However, so-called on-the- runs who had never been charged were left in an uncertain position.

New evidence
Each of the on-the-runs who received the letters will now be told that they could still be convicted if new evidence emerges, Mr Robinson said – though the letters had been qualified in that fashion from the beginning.

However, Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey said the british attorney general, Dominic Grieve, had made it clear the scheme was lawful and proper.

“Given that reality, I have to say I’m not sure what there is to inquire into,” he said.

The inquiry will investigate the operation of the “letters for comfort” scheme by the Northern Ireland Office from 2007 and “related matters”, Downing Street said. However, it will not have power to investigate the policy that lay behind this.

British prime minister David Cameron said pointedly that the inquiry would not report before “the end of May” – after the European Parliament and local elections have been held in Northern Ireland.

Seeking to put some distance between himself and the letters, Mr Cameron said it was something that had been “inherited” by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government when they came to power in May 2010.

‘Difficult decisions’
However, he accepted that 38 letters had been issued after he took office in May 2010, adding that he would not seek “to unpick or call into question all the difficult decisions that were made” by those involved in the Belfast Agreement and its aftermath.

Significantly, a minority of the 187 on-the-runs were told that they were, in fact, wanted for questioning by the police in Northern Ireland, or Britain, and that they were liable to be arrested if they travelled there.

Meanwhile, 13 royal prerogatives of mercy were granted between 2000 and 2002 to people who had applied for letters of comfort under the on-the-runs scheme.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore cautioned politicians against reopening tortuously agreed compromises.

“We cannot allow the past to destroy the peace and stability of the present and the prospect of a better future for generations to come,” he said.

The inquiry, headed by a judge, that was ordered by Mr Cameron will have access to all papers and ministers.

Former officials and ministers can be asked to attend, but will not be compelled.