If the DUP overdo their anti-OTR campaign, they risk losing more face

Now where are we? On the basis of Mick’s posts and other comment let’s try to find out. On the face of it the terms of the inquiry are broadly drawn.

The aim of the inquiry is to:

  • To produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the      administrative scheme for ‘On the Runs’ (OTRs)
  • To determine whether any letters sent through the scheme contained errors
  • To make  recommendations as necessary on this or related matters that are drawn to the attention of the Inquiry

The judge  conducting the review will have full access to all government papers about the operation of the scheme. They will be free to interview key individuals in the civil service and the police, and any others where those individuals are willing.

These terms could conceivably cover the question of whether recent letters should be withdrawn, as Arlene Foster  (teeing up to succeed Peter?) has demanded:

“They must immediately go, they have to be stopped immediately – I think that will be a mark of how this issue goes forward and we will be asking that question of the Secretary of State very, very quickly. I make it very clear from this House that we are not just dealing with the past, as we have learnt this morning, we are also dealing with the here and now in relation to this system.”

It would be helpful if the inquiry judge ruled on the equity of stopping the letters. Otherwise it looks like a candidate for judicial review.

Peter Robinson ’s interpretation of the low “legal effect” of the letters may well be too rosy by half, just as Peter Hain  exaggerates the risk of re-arrest. True, the pro forma latter states that:

“If any other outstanding offences come to light or if any requests for extradition were to be received, these would be dealt with in the usual way.”

The Downey case may not directly apply ; after all he was wanted by the Met. But the long judgment will be pored over for wider relevance. How might “any other outstanding offences come to light?” From a police officer turning over an old file or two and saying  “Hmm, let’s have him in for a bit of questioning?”

There’ s presumably no legal obstacle to reopening cases closed by the HET whose record is not open to public scrutiny beyond that of the families. How effective has the HET been? They’ve been criticised for too favourable treatment of security forces’ cases: might they not have been too casual in closing so many terrorist cases? Do you mean to tell me they couldn’t turn up a few more cases if they really tried? (You can hear some people warning to this theme).

If the DUP are serious about challenging concessions made to Sinn Fein, why not demand a wholesale review of terrorist cases? This would certainly be matched by Sinn Fein increasing pressure to demand prosecutions of police and security officers  for collusion and in  some cases “shoot to  kill,” on the basis of evidence readily available, as Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey suggested  in that depressingly low quality Assembly debate.  Then we all could enjoy a fine old frenzy about justice all round and go to hell in a handcart .

The logic of the DUP position is that either they agree with the law officers that the chances of fresh prosecutions range from low to zero: or they launch a campaign to exhume some  old investigations. In the real political world, if they bang their drum too loudly over the OTRs , they’re setting themselves up to fail at the hands of the courts after  leading the public on a merry dance and losing more face with their own voters.

To be fair, even sixteen years after the GFA (which the DUP are now being teased for in reality half accepting), the politicians need help with these highly emotional and complex issues. The time has come for the law officers and others legally qualified to speak out more clearly on the whole issue of the availability of  justice in the Troubles. I hope they will do so at the earliest suitable time.

The concessions to Sinn Fein are no less palatable than they were a fortnight or 16 years ago but they are a done deal. It is moonshine to pretend they can be reversed.  Far better to resist the temptation to overegg.  Let tempers cool (why is it that the DUP are so proud of their outrage?)   and allow the inquiry judge to rap Tony Blair over the knuckles. The big consolation in this row is that so far, victims and survivors have not joined the hue and cry en masse.   As so often, David McKittrick sums up the present row exactly right.

Finally, a tiny concession to human  respect has come from Termon Co Donegal


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  • “The big consolation in this row is that so far, victims and survivors have not joined the hue and cry en masse.”

    Commenters may like to read this Vixen’s blog by Ann Travers and the editorial comment. There is no big consolation for victims and survivors.

    It is despicable that side deals can be done by politicians, agencies and administrations, and that the people who are affected most by those decisions, those people who have already suffered imaginably, are continuously kept in the dark. Ed.

    and from Ann:

    Are families to be drip fed this constant re traumatising? Are they to continually be presented with devastating news via the media? Will no one take responsibility and ensure widows, widowers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, and those injured aren’t impacted so cruelly and left alone to weep and feel disregarded? Because that is what is happening. People are suffering, mostly in silence, in homes, right at this minute.

    The perpetrators blackmailed the governments and the governments acquiesced.

  • lamhdearg

    should the dup not do enough the tuv will make hay come may, its a tightrope act and only time will tell if they stay on the rope, this week was as good a week as any to start jumping up and down shouting the odds, we had it announed one day a man accused of the killing of four british troops released due to a letter issued on behalf of the gov, the next day we had two men given the longest possible terms for the killing of one. watching one could not help but wonder should al-Qadea fight long and dirty enough will they be able to negotiate the release of these men and cut a deal no their on the runs, i dare say we will then have a david mckittrick type telling us that this is the way to go.

  • Morpheus

    Do the DUP have any face left Brian?

    As the dust starts to settle and people see that the letters were in fact innocuous at best they will see that this whole sorry debacle was nothing more than an attempt to assembly the troops into lines so they could march them up to the top of the hill and leave them there. Again. In the process they get to hold onto their seats/salaries/pensions/expenses. The worst part is that we all knew it was coming and yet we all fell for it again, hook, line and sinker.

    PR had no intention of resigning, I think we can all agree on that, and all he has achieved is getting a Judge to sift through 186 letters to see if there were any more monumental cock-ups. Amazing how that will take until the end of May, right after the local and European elections. But if the Judge is going to call witnesses then let’s hope he calls Jonathan Powell, the the Government’s Chief of Staff at that time, Denis Bradley to confirm that he briefed the PB, Drew Harris to confirm that he briefed the PB and those members of that PB who now come out with Manuel’s “I know nothing”.

    The criticism of the HET is misplaced as the number of Republican, Loyalist and State cases currently under investigation show. The last I heard it was greatly weighted against Republicans and rightly so – hell rub it up ’em as they say.

    The one I feel sorry in all this is The Justice Minister – the one guy who should’ve known all the ins and outs of this scheme from day one but didn’t for reasons which are still unclear.

    This was nothing more than politicking at its worst and we knew it was coming with the elections looming. It’s like Christmas, we know that’s it coming and we have all year to get ready for it but still manage to get in a panic when it arrives

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    You’re in danger of sweeping a real scandal under the carpet by shifting focus onto the political fall-out. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball here: the government covered up a secret deal they did with SF, they have admitted to that cover-up (Hain, Villiers yesterday) and that it was wrong (Villiers yesterday on Today). Let’s not let them off the hook by focussing on the much less important finger-pointing-fest that has come in its wake, unedifying though that has been. The ‘big fuss over nothing’ approach serves no one’s interests except possibly SF’s, who were of course party to the wrongdoing. McKittrick in the Independent today, despite a misleading headline, confirms that from a non-unionist standpoint this deal was a huge mistake and has damaged community relations significantly.

    And I don’t understand what you mean when you say the reasons are still unclear why David Ford didn’t know. Back to the key facts of this: the government (and past ministers) have admitted the deal was done in secret after parliament rejected an attempt at a deal on OTRs. It’s not over-stating it to say this is a subversion of parliamentary democracy that they went ahead in secret in the face of that.

    I see the debate over what was or wasn’t revealed to the policing board – we’ll see what facts come out in the inquiry about that – but
    (1) is the policing board a forum for announcing controversial new government policies – really? Any other examples of when it has had this role?
    (2) even if it was announced there – which it seems so far it wasn’t in any kind of precise terms – would that have been enough? Wasn’t the government supposed to be seeking cross-community consensus on a way forward here, not presenting fait accompli side deals after the fact?
    (3) how come it was down to Bradley to tell our elected representatives about this – how did he know, and how long before he claims to have shared it with elected representatives? And why him and not other people?

    I think the policing board part of the story is a red herring but in any case, it seems references to what was happening with OTRs at the policing board was vague at best. We can argue about whether representatives should have asked more questions about the vague information they were told, but surely the question is, why wasn’t the scheme made known more clearly and earlier by the government?

    More salient surely is that when direct questions were asked, they were not answered truthfully. Dodds wrote to Blair directly about what was happening with OTRs while this scheme was going on and received a reply which failed to mention the scheme. At worst, unionists should have protested earlier about the obfuscation – but let’s not lose our focus, the obfuscation was the government’s, in collusion with SF.

    Blaming unionists here is like blaming the police for a crime they were slow to discover. While we’re hauling the police over the coals, the criminal saunters off unnoticed with a wry smile.

    Turning this government deal and cover-up into a critique of unionism is lazy and undermining of community relations – not to mention that long-forgotten thing in Northern Ireland, the truth.

  • streetlegal

    The DUP are certainly embarrassed by Jim Allister’s commentary, but in electoral terms they are much more fearful of a resurrection of the UUP vote. Mike Nesbitt has been playing a very cynical and clever game since the flag protests began. Instead of overtly attacking the DUP he has concentrated his efforts on wooing the Orange Order and ‘disenfranchised’ loyalists in Belfast who are unlikely turn out to vote for DUP candidates in the coming election. Mrs Dodds is likely to be the first casualty – re-elected but with a large reduction in the DUP frist preference vote.

  • IanR

    One of the letters was produced in court in the Gerry McGeough case a few years ago, only in that instance it was produced by the prosecution to disprove his claim to have had assurances that he wouldn’t be prosecuted. (The request for a ‘letter of comfort’ had been submitted by SF on his behalf; in due course the NIO produced a letter but it said in effect “you are wanted in the north”; but McGeough had fallen out with SF in the intervening period whilst the request for a letter was being processed, so he never received it).

    So there was a case that demonstrated the so-called ‘secret deal’ in action, publicly reported and taking place in open court (with a DUP councillor as the victim/witness!) However, in that case it resulted in a conviction and two years imprisonment, so unionists chose not to make a fuss about what was and is after all, an administrative process.

    (McGeough also tried arguing the case for a Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but that failed too as it had only previously been applied in cases where the recipient had served two years in jail but who didn’t qualify for early release for various anomalous reasons.)

  • IanR


  • MU, Irish government officials were part of this secret process too:

    32. Also on 2 May 200 there were meetings at the Irish Embassy in London between officials from both governments and Sinn Fein. The Minutes of those meetings record that Jonathan Powell (the Government’s Chief Negotiator) indicated that the Government was prepared to operate a similar system in relation to OTRs to the one being operated by the Irish government. He indicated that if the Government was given a list of names, it would clarify with the police and the prosecuting authorities the position of those individuals and, where appropriate, would review whether it remained in the public interest to pursue a prosecution.

    ‘Officials from both governments’ is a vague term; it might or might not include government ministers.

  • Brian Walker

    certainly the McGeough case is much discussed and will no doubt figure in the inquiry. Pity it won’t be in public!

  • Double Standards

    We all have known for some time that the Good Friday Agreement had it’s flaws and despite the efforts of Governments and the Main parties at the time to sell it as a new beginning, the Treaty has never been fully accepted by either of the main parties in the Executive and has bound the people of Northern Ireland to a stagnant, festering cesspit of ‘us and them politics. The double standards that we are now witnessing will drive community relations in Northern Ireland even further into the mire.

    In just one of many disturbing examples to emerge in the last few days, it was announced that 250 soldiers face being stripped of their anonymity and interviewed again in a new criminal investigation into the Bloody Sunday killings 42 years ago, yes 42 years ago.

    At the same time a ‘judge led inquiry’ into ‘comfort letters’ for IRA OTRs was announced by David Cameron to head of an impending crisis following, some would say, faux DUP anger and threats to resign.

    Royal pardons signed by the Queen were granted to IRA as part of the peace deal running up the the GFA. Republican killers were allowed to return to their lives without any recall. In a deal between Blair’s Government and Sinn Fein up to 200 other suspected IRA terrorists were protected against future prosecution.

    Without getting into the rights or wrongs attached to both soldiers and terrorists during the years of conflict, and there were wrongs on both sides, it is disturbing that a the British Government is party to treating the latter with mind boggling leniency in order to appease the Sinn Fein leadership and at the same time treat members of the armed forces, now pensioners, in a totally opposite way, in order to continue appeasing supporters of past terrorism and to enable the implementation of power sharing, a ‘shabby contrived fix’ that has never worked for the majority of people in the Province. They just want to live in peace, get on with their lives and build a better future for their children.

    I don’t know if it is possible to ‘tweak’ a Treaty that was sold to an all Ireland electorate on what was a false premise, leaving out the unedifying parts. If it was possible, perhaps it would be a good thing and provide us all with a fresh beginning. An opportunity to set up real power sharing where all the people are represented in a proper democracy including an Opposition at Stormont.

    The current system where Sinn Fein and DUP can run roughshod over the smaller parties and veto anything they don’t like has resulted in a gradual decline in our services and values and will eventually lead us back to further conflict unless strong Westminster/Dublin Governments realise where we are heading and take action, preferably before the next election.

    The double standards that we have witnessed will now see John Downey, a suspect in the Hyde Park bombing return home safe in the knowledge the he will not be held to account. At the same time ex-soldiers continue to sleep uneasily in their beds while they await yet more questioning in order to appease Sinn Fein and their supporters and uphold the sham that currently passes for power sharing.

  • Morpheus

    The double-standards in your post alone are very, very evident Mike.

    Let’s get a few things straight here:

    1. When it comes to the soldiers then the passage of time doesn’t come into it – here is no statute of limitations on murder. Soldiers, people who are paid to protect us and are given extensive training and equipment from our taxes, murdered innocent civilians who were running away and others crawling for cover. Those soldiers DESERVE to face the courts – it is absolutely essential in fact to prove to us all that we are all equal in the eyes of the law, no one is above it. Lady Justice needs to be blind for all, she can’t peek under the blindfold every now and again.

    I am not saying those found guilty should go to prison but they deserve to have ‘murderer’ forever printed on their record and conscience, There is no excuse for dropping to one knee and shooting teenagers in the back and head, none whatsoever. Those who were shot were not some sort of lower life form, they were ordinary people like you and me so the soldiers DESERVE to sleep uneasily in their beds.

    2. I agree with you in regards to the Royal Pardons – I find them despicable and should have been neither requested nor given. They are the epitome of cowardice.

    3. Those who got ‘comfort letters were NOT, repeat NOT protected from future prosecution. The Ministerial Statement on Wednesday showed the text of the letters and those who received them were under no illusion that they would face prosecution if new evidence came to light. If you read the text you will see that the ‘comfort’ letters were nothing more than factual statements confirming if the recipients was wanted or not at that time, That’s it. No amnesty, no immunity and no ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards. Those are just terms thrown about by the DUP in a an attempt to get votes,

    4. In terms of Downey then it was the error in the ‘comfort’ letter he received which led to the prosecution being stayed. It was not the fact that he had one, it was because it contained a mistake which said he was not wanted in the UK when in actuality he was. The Judge and prosecution conceded that he was misled and the Judge saw it as an abuse of process. As I have said in other threads, when the authorities in the UK new they had a case against Downey then they should have started extradition proceedings and then Downey would have been under no illusion that he was wanted.

    But your double standards are very evident. You can’t take about soldiers being immune from facing the consequences of their actions and then demand that Downey face the consequences of his. If the evidence is there they both Downey and the soldiers should go on trial.