At yesterday’s press conference at Downing Street, Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to be drawn on the exact nature of the judicial process that is expected to be included in the legislation dealing with those paramilitaries who escaped prosecution before 1998. Today the Secretary of State Peter Hain revealed something more – in relation to the legislation, and whatever judicial process is involved – “This is a proper judicial scheme and security force members [who might find themselves charged with crimes pre-1998] should at least be treated equally,”. Whether he means the legislation will also cover those security force members, or if it will be used as a template for future legislation, isn’t exactly clear.Here’s what Tony Blair had to say on the legislation being brought forward by Peter Hain, at the press conference yesterday –
Prime Minister, in a few weeks the Northern Ireland Secretary is going to be bringing forward legislation to deal with fugitives in Northern Ireland, the so-called on the runs. A lot of the victims of those fugitives will find a fine irony in your tough stand now on terrorism, and what they believe is going to happen when this legislation is published. How do you persuade those victims and the wider Unionist community in Northern Ireland that you are not going to make this a general amnesty for people just for political expediency?
Because we are plainly not. You see Brian, one thing that is important for people to understand about this, and this has been part of the discussion of the basic deal on the table for several years now, so when people come forward and say: Oh, this is something new the government is just doing, the on the runs issue has been kicking around for years and it has been part of the discussion for years, and the reason is very, very simple, and it may be just in advance of this important decision that I explain it. Under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, people who were convicted and in prison for terrorist offences pre-1998 got released. The question of the on the runs arises for people who committed, or may have committed, or are suspected of committing offences pre-1998 – pre-1998 – how can you possibly say they should be put in prison if the people already convicted have been let out. That is why there is symmetry if you like about dealing with convicted prisoners and on the runs. Now convicted prisoners, people didn’t like either, but it was a necessary part of a new start in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Secretary says there will be a judicial process, what will the nature of that judicial process be?
Well, you will have to wait and see when he does it, but basically first of all it is not a general amnesty, and most specifically it is not in respect of people, anyone who has committed an offence after 1998 has the full force of the law applied to them, and that is it, they are not part of this thing at all, but neither is a general amnesty in the sense there will be a judicial process. But do you see what I mean, there would be something irrational in saying that somebody who was convicted and in prison for a pre-1998 offence is let out, but somebody who is abroad, and may not yet have even been convicted of an offence pre-1998, you know has to be put in prison. You couldn’t justify it and that is why you have got the stalemate at the moment.
“This is a proper judicial scheme and security force members should at least be treated equally,” Mr Hain said.
“Any member of the security forces who might find themselves charged with crimes pre-1998, should not suffer any discrimination compared with those involved in paramilitary activity, loyalist or republican, who benefit from the scheme and come out on licence.”
Of course, the possibility of accusations of discrimination would only be because of the nature of this legislation in the first place..