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These terms could conceivably cover the question of whether recent letters should be withdrawn, as Arlene Foster  (teeing up to succeed Peter?)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

 

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