Pressure on Cameron to defuse bomb row

Formula needed to placate unionism without annoying republicans

  First Minister Peter Robinson who  indicated he was prepared to resign unless there was a judicial review  into the  John Downey case. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

First Minister Peter Robinson who indicated he was prepared to resign unless there was a judicial review into the John Downey case. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire


One issue dominated public debate in the North yesterday – the increasingly toxic fallout from the collapse of the case against John Downey for alleged involvement in the London Hyde Park IRA bombing in 1982.

Former northern secretary Peter Hain and Sinn Féin politicians such as Gerry Kelly characterised Downey’s so-called get-out-of-jail-free card and the guarantees of immunity from prosecution provided to more than 180 other republicans as the realpolitik of cementing the peace process.

But unionist politicians, to use First Minister Peter Robinson’s words, were “incandescent” and warned of the possible collapse of Stormont.

Throughout the day they queued up in the House of Commons and on the various BBC Radio Ulster programmes and on other media to express their “outrage” and “disgust”.

The first sign that unionists weren’t for placating came in Westminster yesterday morning when DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds warned that the case was serious “not just for the process of law and order but for the very stability and continued existence of devolution in Northern Ireland”. Back in the North DUP Minister for Enterprise Arlene Foster spoke of an “absolute crisis” in the political process with Robinson trumping all comments by threatening to resign as First Minister if a judicial review was not ordered into the Downey case and all the other cases where so-called OTRs [on-the-runs] got “comfort letters” assuring them they would not face prosecution.

Robinson has threatened to quit before but this time his words – and those of his senior colleagues - appeared to carry more weight than his 2011 pronouncement that any change to prison officer emblems could lead to his standing down.

It was a day not to add fuel to the fire. But North Belfast Assembly member Kelly, the main Sinn Féin linkman for republican OTRs seeking official letters of assurance, did just that by almost casually conceding that if the cases had gone to court some of the republicans may have ended up in prison. This all cut deep with unionist victims of IRA violence to whom Robinson and other unionist politicians must pay particular regard.

Kelly and Hain suggested it was disingenuous to portray this as a secret deal. Writer and former Sinn Féin publicity director Danny Morrison believed it was a “nonsense” for senior unionists to contend they were unaware of the non-prosecution pledges. Those arguments may have been bolstered by a republican view that such a scheme could not have remained secret because some PSNI sources involved in implementing the scheme would have passed on information about it to the DUP. But the definitive word from Robinson, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and from unionists of all stripes was that they did not know.

The issue flows directly from the 2001 Weston Park negotiations in England where the live hand-grenade test of how to address the problem of the OTRs was addressed.

This resulted in British government legislation planned for 2005 to remove the “anomaly” where 400 republican and loyalist prisoners –some of them responsible for the most heinous crimes such as the 1973 Shankill bombing and the subsequent Greysteel killings - were released early from prison under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement while the OTRs were left in “no man’s land”. British prime minister Tony Blair and then northern secretary Hain had to abandon that legislation in the face of strong opposition from unionist politicians and also from the SDLP who protested that not only would the OTRs benefit but that British soldiers implicated in Troubles-related crimes such as the Bloody Sunday killings would also come under the immunity scheme.

It was thereafter that the British government fashioned the “comfort letter” scheme for Downey and the other OTRs. Hain and Sinn Féin yesterday dismissed suggestions that this was a secret deal but whatever about any suspicions people may have held about why republican fugitives weren’t being apprehended and brought before the courts, the facts seem to state that it was indeed a secret deal.

Letters of immunity
Senior Sinn Féin personnel and republican OTRs obviously knew about it as did the PSNI officers who signed off on the letters of immunity. And, of course, Blair’s government and later David Cameron’s administration knew about it because they allowed it to happen and to continue. But otherwise news of the deal came as a surprise to the public yesterday and as a shock to victims and survivors of republican violence. Where it goes from here is unpredictable at this stage. Hain and others are correct in saying this is all part of the failure to get to grips with the past, one of the issues US diplomat Richard Haass considered, but for the moment the more pressing concern is to safeguard the powersharing administration.

Haass proposals
Some minor progress has been made among the five main political leaders on the Haass proposals but that could be undermined with Ulster Unionist leader Nesbitt accusing Sinn Féin of “incredible bad faith” by engaging in six months of negotiations on the past with the secret knowledge that more than 180 republicans would not have to answer for the past.

Robinson has threatened to resign if his concerns are not addressed. A judicial review could be held as he is demanding but rescinding the scheme, as he also requires, could lead to even further instability with republicans likely to be even more incandescent than he is in such an eventuality.

An added problem is that the local and European elections coming in May are likely to make people more hardline.

Aside from issues of justice and whatever moral concerns people may entertain the pressure is on Cameron and Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers to find a formula that conciliates Robinson, and unionism in general, but doesn’t unduly aggravate republicans.