On The Runs letters could still be an election issue for Conservatives

The Commons report shows the outrage many MPs felt towards Tony Blair

The MPs decided the letters were “questionably unlawful”, had “distorted the legal process” and they cast huge doubt on Tony Blair’s claim that he had little choice but to concede the letters to keep Sinn Féin onside. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The MPs decided the letters were “questionably unlawful”, had “distorted the legal process” and they cast huge doubt on Tony Blair’s claim that he had little choice but to concede the letters to keep Sinn Féin onside. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

 

During multiple sessions for nearly a year the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee probed and prodded ministers and officials to unearth the truth behind the operation of the On The Runs letters.

Most of the MPs were outraged – some believed that suspected terrorists had, in their eyes, received a “get out of jail card”, while others believed it was just one more example of Sinn Féin’s hold over 10 Downing Street.

However, it was not an exercise that weighed evidence impartially. For DUP MPs Ian Paisley and David Simpson, the scheme showed Tony Blair’s willingness to sup with the devil.

Former Ulster Unionist and now Independent MP Sylvia Hermon was outraged that former PSNI detective chief superintendent Norman Baxter had, in her eyes, been hung out to dry.

Meanwhile, the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long and others, including former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, were outraged that they had never been told the scheme existed.

The MPs took a diametrically different view of the so-called comfort letters to the one taken by one of the UK’s most senior judges, Lady Justice Hallett of the court of appeal, who held a private inquiry last year.

The MPs decided the letters were “questionably unlawful”, had “distorted the legal process” and they cast huge doubt on Blair’s claim that he had little choice but to concede the letters to keep Sinn Féin onside. In fact, they simply did not accept it.

Hallett thought differently. Acknowledging “the considerable benefit of hindsight”, she found the existence of the scheme “was not kept secret but nor were details ... broadcast to a wide audience”. She “had no doubt” the people involved believed the letters were “central” to the success of the Belfast Agreement.

For now, the MPs made recommendations. Firstly, it should never happen again, which, no doubt, is guaranteed. Secondly, they demanded legislation to ensure John Downey is the only one who has a prosecution stopped because he was given a letter.

Here, the MPs are on doubtful ground. The British government has already said the letters have no legal standing; but it was always supposed to be the case that prosecutions could be taken if new evidence came forward.

Parliamentary reports often gather dust and this may enjoy the same fate. However, that may not always be the case, depending on the upcoming general election.

There are a couple of cases similar to Downey in the legal works. Following the stay on the Donegal man’s prosecution, the British attorney general decided nothing could overturn the ruling.

Even if such decisions lie with independent law officers, a Conservative-led government after May – which may be dependent on the DUP for votes – will be under pressure to look differently on such cases, if prosecutions are stopped, in future.