It’s too much to hope for that politicians should act with restraint over the Downey debacle. It gives them a heaven sent opportunity to jump up and down. Look, at one level the Downey case is an obvious anomaly. He was wanted. He wasn’t not wanted. Unless you think that the 180 letters were a cynical ploy to let any old warriors off the hook at random. Why stop at 180 republicans?
But the core problem is not the one exposed yesterday but the one we’ve been living with for years, the price of peace which includes the various devices of de facto amnesty, well traced here in the submission by Kieran McEvoy and other lawyers to the Haass team.
The Downey case has exposed two toxic problems. One is the issue of secrecy over the 180 letters. The other is the link with the aborted On the Runs scheme of 2006 which would have allowed wanted people to return home and face a judicial tribunal delivering a penalty of zero. At least the Early Release Scheme of 1998 which had been just about swallowed by unionists provided for two years in jail. Sinn Fein and the SDLP objected because the OTR scheme also let state servants off the hook. This suggested they were confident it would be easier to bring former police officers to trial than paramilitaries. The 180 letters seem to have been for on the runs who thought they were in the frame but weren’t.
You can easily understand loyalists wanting to scramble aboard and crying discrimination at being denied the opportunity.Were similar offers made to state servants living quietly at home? It seems not. The deal was horribly one sided.
How much better it would have been to have disclosed the decision to send out letters. It only stokes fears that there is even more to hide.
How much better it would be too if all parties openly admitted all the limitations of due legal process. Those essential facts remain, will survive election campaigns . All the furore over the Downey debacle will achieve will be to push further back any hopes of dealing sensibly with the past and perhaps the other elements of the Haass agenda. For once, the blame rests more with a British government than the local parties. Is it too much to hope for they won’t tear themselves apart ?
Incidentally, I’ve just been watching Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics scolding MPs for failing to raise the subject of Putin putting Russian troops on some sort of standby over Ukraine, news whch had just come in during the sitting . What a comment on the parochial nature of PMQs he said – after a session in which three NI MPs had been called over the Downey case. News of Robinson’s threat to resign had just come during the sitting too. But not a mention from Neil on that, not a peep. Northern Ireland is the abiding problem right under their noses too close for them to focus on.
Added at 6. 20pm
One important point that’s not clear to me.. Much of the comment and even reporting is assuming letters went out to people who had charges against them live or were otherwise still wanted. However the Attorney General of England and Wales Dominic Grieve told MPs that the letters applied to those who were not wanted because the evidence was not available. The statement of Jonathan Powell who was a signatory of early letters appears to bear this out. If this is an accurate reading of the system it means that the letters were not a virtual amnesty, equivalent to the abortive On the Runs legal process of admitting the offence before a tribunal and incurring no penalty. It is in the same category of hundreds of cases dealt with by the Historical Enquiries Team.
While of course this process should have been declared at some point, it may not be as anomalous as some DUP politicians are suggesting. The situation is further confused by Denis Bradley’s statement that the Policing Board knew about it when he was vice chair.
To form a clear view, what’s missing is the total number of on the runs who would have been eligible for the tribunal process had it gone through. If the figure was a provable several hundred, there’s room for doubt. If the number was 187 of thereabouts, we’ll know that the letters constituted a virtual amnesty for many wanted men which was more generous than the early release scheme that was designed to follow it. It makes me wonder why the On the Runs scheme was ever floated if all that was needed was to send out letters in secret.
Later still.. The whole thing bristles with anomalies. You got two years under the Early Release Scheme if the police came and got you. If you fessed up of your own accord you got off scot free. What would have happened to an awkward customer who surrendered himself pleaded not guilty but was convicted? Two years then? Was the OTR scheme designed to attract even more IRA men with a de facto amnesty before the final chapter of arms decommissioning? Was it also a belated attempt to include others such as police and soldiers in the deal – an attempt vetoed by Sinn Fein?
Peter’s latest account after his Hillsborough meeting with Villiers goes some way to answering some of these questions.
He said he had information that the Royal Prerogative, effectively granting amnesty to some republicans, had been used.
“It appears that we are not just dealing with On The Runs who received letters, but we are also dealing with people who received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, that indicates there were offences involved,” he said.
“So we are not talking just about people who it is believed that the police did not have sufficient evidence to make a prosecution stick – that makes it a very serious matter.
The only consolation is that the Brits have to take the blame, although it hardly helps to learn that republicans appear to have been the exclusive beneficiaries. That is a pretty wretched decision by any standards that might never have got out had it not been for the Downey blunder. It looks like a fairly high risk piece of realpolitik by Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell that was surely unnecessary. What’s more the centre ground of unionism and nationalism might well have united against it and who knows? even preserved their leading role. It was also rushed through up to the point of devolution of policing and justice by the present government without telling their inheritors what was going on. It will take some convincing that this was only a bureaucratic procedure that just kept trundling on, rather than wilful deception.
The way out? The British government should infuriate everyone equally and pass the general amnesty law they would have liked to have passed in 1998 but baulked at the political challenge . Would that I were entirely serious about that.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London