On the principle of blog what you know, publish learn more and then blog more, here’s as much sense as I can currently squeeze out of this OTR business. I’m sure more will emerge over time.
1 After a day of talking up two divergent matters (Hain’s controversial administrative deal with SF, and the general issue of OTRs) and the ongoing issue of the OTRs, it finally became clear from Gerry Kelly last night that Peter Robinson was never let directly in on this particular arrangement. However it is also true that there was an indirect description of the process given to the Policing Board, although it falls far short of the sort of resolution process described by Peter Hain yesterday.
2 Robinson’s furious response is likely calculated in the first place to chime with the public anger within the Unionist ‘community’ and broader the middle classes. Hanging a resignation ultimatum on a judicial inquiry aimed at unearthing the facts is also politically useful. The demand that all letters be rescinded, not quite so much.
3 That’s because the letters in and of themselves are not controversial. All they do is inform an individual whether the police are interested in them, or not. This one became controversial, because Mr Justice Sweeney took the view that the state had de facto promised John Downie that he was not being looked for, when in fact he was. If this proves to be the only anomalous case there may genuinely be nothing to see here.
4 Despite the fact that the issuing of letters continued to be issued by the NIO under the current government, Dominic Grieve, the Conservative Attorney-General, decided that “the matter should be tested in court” rather than accept that it would “automatically prevent Mr Downey’s prosecution”. He believes there’s no grounds for an appeal, but effectively ‘busted’ the issue out into the open for the very first time.
5 Although Sinn Fein were trying yesterday to put some distance between themselves and this process, the party’s reasoning and their central involvement in the mechanics of this process is clear, not least from the Sweeney judgment. SF gathered their own list, gave it to the British, who had it checked and then the letters handed back to SF who then distributed them to the list members.
6 The Downey case helps date the controversial deal. On 13th April 2007 (ie, months after those conversations referenced by Powell in his book) the Met confirmed to the PSNI that John Downey was still wanted. Yet by 22 July, John Downey receives his letter of assurance from Mark Sweeney at the Northern Ireland Office. According to the PSNI, those assurances for the NIO went further than they were told by the PSNI. That, potentially, would switch the story from Police error, to surreptitious political deal.
7 There are some questions for Sinn Fein at the end of this too. As recently as May 2012 Sinn Fein were pressing the Tanaiste in the Dail to “see that the British Government implement Article 20 of the Weston Park Agreement.” He replied that the official means to do so was dropped “when the only supporting party, Sinn Féin, could not accept certain aspects of the proposed legislation”.
8 All of this was done in the knowledge that they already had a secret deal extended exclusively to OTRs on Sinn Fein’s own private list. By its very nature the secret terms could hardly apply to those OTRs outside the SF machine, like Gerry McGeough for instance. (See the Vixens for some useful questions in this and other regards).
9 Last night, Arlene Foster suggested that “we [the DUP] entered a process in Haass based on a deceit”. Naomi Long who played a large role in the Haass deliberations also expressed a degree of exasperation with Sinn Fein. If Richard Haass knew about the concessions already given SF no one else seems to have had a notion they already had a deal in their back pocket.
10 Politically, the content of Haass may still have a decent half life. But the First Minister (ever determined not to waste a good crisis) and his threat to resign if there is not some considerable openness about the undisclosed side deal probably kicks Haass a little further down the road, as another briefly fabled deadline melts into another imagined timeline.
As footnote, its interesting that on Nolan last night, Foster referenced Gerry Adams words (text) to the Taoiseach at Leader’s Questions yesterday, “listen to what is being said in here and take this matter out of the political realm by going straight into an independent inquiry.” If only it were that simple. But it’s hard to deny it’s a decent place to start?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty