Blair running away from ‘On-The-Runs’ bill as it, err, stands…

THE Government looks set to back down on some of its ham-fisted proposals for an amnesty for ‘Troubles’ fugitives, whether republican, loyalist or State. The concessions appear to be that those benefiting from the scheme should appear before a special tribunal, and a time limit also seems likely. But the DUP seems happier about other limits to the legislation which could benefit IRA victims – and it might even open doors for republicans too. No wonder frosty relations between Peter Robinson and Monica McWilliams are thawing.The Sunday Times reported:

Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the DUP and a strong opponent of the [Northern Ireland Offences] bill, said: “We have also been assured that there will be no limitation on civil proceedings and evidence gathered can be used in civil proceedings in the same way as it is in the crown court.”

This means that if evidence emerges at the special tribunals it can be used by victims to take action for damages against offenders, in the same way as some of those bereaved by the Real IRA bombing at Omagh are suing those they believe to be responsible.

Robinson is confident that the government will accept an amendment that would specify that anyone guilty of torture would not benefit.

“This is likely to be accepted because the European human rights convention and the United Nations convention against torture require the government to impose the appropriate penalty against anyone responsible for torture,” he said.

Liam Clarke added that the amnesty bill’s extension to the security forces “is particularly relevant with the finding of the Bloody Sunday tribunal due out by Easter. It may find members of the British Army responsible for murder or manslaughter”.

Robinson’s coy choice of highlighting one amendment to the legislation – that torturers will not benefit from the amnesty – is interesting. Robinson appears to believe that victims of the IRA could be compensated in civil actions using the evidence presented in the special tribunals for ‘Troubles’ fugitives.

But since similar legislation will also apply to State soldiers, police officers or other agents suspected of ‘scheduled’ or terrorist offences, such a strategy of claiming compensation on the basis of what the legislation cannot cover may be useful to other victims too…

And why not take advantage? As the legislation stands, those suspected of State criminality would be treated less favourably than an alleged IRA fugitive, according to the legal opinion explored by the Irish Times recently.

There were rumours after Weston Park that the military weren’t a bit happy about the apparent equivalence of IRA terrorism and State violence. I can’t imagine the MoD would be willing to accept suspected rogue soldiers being treated worse than suspected ‘on-the-run’ terrorists – the average soldier in Iraq today might not take it too well if he thought his Government was prepared to treat a terrorist better than him.

The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill reaches its report stage in Parliament later this month. It’s definitely one to watch, as Blair will have to perform a major shift on this. Good job he can blame Peter Hain though, eh?