Tony Blair says ‘on-the-runs’ letters were crucial to keeping North's peace process on track

Former British prime minister begins giving evidence to Northern Ireland Affairs inquiry

Former British prime minister Tony Blair answers questions at the parliamentary inquiry in London, into the ‘on the runs’ (OTRs) letters and the deal he did with Sinn Féin to secure peace in Northern Ireland. Photograph: PA Wire

Former British prime minister Tony Blair answers questions at the parliamentary inquiry in London, into the ‘on the runs’ (OTRs) letters and the deal he did with Sinn Féin to secure peace in Northern Ireland. Photograph: PA Wire

 

Former British prime minister, Tony Blair has said that the letters given to over 200 Republicans telling them they were not wanted for prosecution was crucial to keeping Northern Ireland’s peace process on course.

However, he rejected charges that in saying the letters had satisfied Sinn Féin’s demands because they had constantly complained to him that he had failed to honour an agreement made in Weston Park in 2001 about fugitives.

Mr Blair finally appeared this afternoon before the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is investigating the decision that led to the collapse of the trial of John Downey, who was wanted for involvement in the Hyde Park bombing in 1982.

Delivering a robust performance, Mr Blair rejected criticisms of his actions, saying he had acted at all points to ensure the toll of victims left by the Northern Ireland Troubles was not increased.

The so-called “On The Runs” scheme, which was set up in 1999, saw people getting letters telling them they were not going to face trial if prosecutors decided that there was no evidence, or insufficient evidence to justify taking them to court.

Downey’s prosecution was stayed when an Old Bailey judge found that he had proper grounds for believing that he could travel into the UK without fear of arrest because he had been given a letter.

An earlier inquiry by a senior British judge has found that Downey should never have received the letter because he was wanted by the Metropolitan Police for Hyde Park, even though the Police Service of Northern Ireland had said that he was not.

Mr Blair today accepted the Downey letter should never have been sent, but he emphasised that while he was responsible as prime minister he was not involved in the actions that led to the letter being issued.

Letters telling people who could not be convicted that they would not face trial fell far short of what Sinn Féin had looked for, he told MPs who have spent nearly nine months trying to get him to appear before them.

However, Sinn Féin’s demands for an amnesty for those who had fled Northern Ireland could not be met because of opposition from Unionists and other quarters, said Mr Blair, who returned from the Middle East for his appearance.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin refused to accept the then Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble’s proposals that fugitives would go before a judge, be convicted – if evidence existed against them – and then released on licence.

The issue of the “On The Runs” was crucial at three points during his time in office: in 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement, in 2002 during the decommissioning rows and in late 2006 before Sinn Féin decided to support the PSNI.

Mr Blair wrote to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams in December 2006 promising to accelerate the issuing of letters to “On The Runs”, just weeks before Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis decision a month later to back the police.

Even though he could not give Sinn Féin the amnesty it wanted, he said it was important that he showed “good faith” in the places where he could do something to meet part of their demands, even though that what was far from what the party wanted.

Clearly critical of the decision by the NI Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers now to say that the letters are worthless and would be reviewed by police, Mr Blair said: “You inherited a peace process that worked, but be careful with it, it’s fragile still.”

The House of Commons meeting was attended by some of the families of the four soldiers killed in the Hyde Park bombing and by some relatives of Protestants slaughtered in the Kingsmill massacre.

Democratic Unionist Upper Bann MP David Simpson said many victims felt a “sense of betrayal” and now believed that the killers of their loved ones would never be brought to justice.

Replying, Mr Blair said he understood the pain of victims and their relatives, but added that political leaders have “to draw a line in the sand” on occasions for the wider benefit of society as a whole.