The recent crisis in Northern Ireland over secret letters from the British Government to republican “On the Runs” (OTRs) underscores the fragility of the power-sharing institutions.
The crisis emerged after the trial of John Downey, accused of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, collapsed. It emerged that he received a letter in 2007 from the British Government telling him he would not face trial. Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, threatened to collapse the power-sharing Executive if the British Government failed to call a judge-led inquiry into the “get out of jail free cards” (in fact the letters leave open the possibility of prosecution if further evidence emerges).
It has since transpired the letter was sent to Downey by mistake. He was, in fact, still wanted by the Metropolitan Police, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) failed to inform the British Attorney General or the Northern Ireland Office of this.
The issue arose because the 1998 Good Friday Agreement granted early release to those convicted of paramilitary crimes but did not cover those suspected but not charged of crimes committed before 1998, or those who had been charged with or convicted of offences but had escaped.
Negotiations continued after the Agreement, as Sinn Féin sought clarification on the legal status of escaped prisoners. The issue was linked to the IRA putting its weapons beyond use, and once that was confirmed in September 2005, the then Secretary of State Peter Hain announced that the Government would legislate for the OTRs.
The resulting NI (Offences) Bill was initially welcomed by Sinn Féin. However, the remit of the bill was much wider. As SDLP MP for Foyle, Mark Durkan, wrote at the time: “This legislation applies [also]... to every unsolved murder by loyalists — even if they do not end their activity or decommission a single bullet. It even applies to state murders.”
On the BBC’s Hearts and Minds programme, Martin McGuinness, appeared relaxed about this, saying that he did “not envisage that any people who were involved in the murders of nationalists... is ever going to be brought before a court in this day and age.”
Sinn Féin then reversed their position, under sustained pressure from other republicans, victims’ groups, and the SDLP, and the bill collapsed. In 2006, Tony Blair wrote to Gerry Adams that the Government was putting in place new mechanisms for dealing with OTRs, including “expediting the existing administrative procedures”.
It was this clandestine system for reviewing the legal status of OTRs that was fully revealed with the collapse of the Downey trial. 187 letters have been sent to republicans assuring them that they will not face prosecution on the basis of existing evidence.
Predictably, some Tory MPs are now demanding that the threat of criminal prosecution is lifted for the paratroopers who murdered 14 unarmed civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. One MP has said: “I'm damned if they [the republicans] should be given an amnesty and former soldiers left hanging there; uncertain over whether they might face prosecution.”
The issue has pointed up the secretive nature of many of the peace process negotiations.
It has exposed the hypocrisy of the Unionists, who have consistently opposed investigations into murders by the British state yet are happy to grandstand on the issue of OTRs months.
It has also exposed the self-serving motives of Sinn Féin, who have opened up the issue of immunity for loyalist and state murderers by pursuing a secretive process dealing exclusively with outstanding republican cases.