The crisis has begun to abate, without the direct threat of Stormont collapsing in the immediate future. Despite various claims from the predictable sources in both former government and pliant media circles this was and remains a major scandal and a colossal indictment of the whole political process.
The first suggestion at minimising the relevance of these events has been that the suggestion that these letters to suspected terrorists as arranged by Sinn Fein (was the old term Sinn Fein / IRA ever more appropriate?) were not actually letters of amnesty. That may be theoretically correct but functionally nonsense. Quite clearly these letters suggested that persons suspected of serious criminal wrongdoing were no longer going to be pursued and despite Robinson’s claims of last week it looks extremely likely that the letters are still well worth the paper they are written on. The only outrage on this issue which can fairly be described as synthetic is any such by the government of the RoI. The serial failure over the decades of the Troubles by successive RoI governments to extradite suspected or even convicted terrorists was the major driver for the “need” for these letters in the first place.
The next suggestion for minimisation is that it has been argued that some or all of the political parties knew what was going on or should have done. That may have some validity but such has been the sheer level of dishonesty and duplicity by the Blair government over the process in Northern Ireland that no one except the likes of Blair, Powell, Mowlam and Hain (if even they) would have been able to keep track of the side deals. The simple fact is also that we were repeatedly told that there was and would be no amnesty. That claim was repeated frequently and even if true initially it rapidly became untrue. The unionist parties and particularly the SDLP have good reason to feel aggrieved. They were there when there were attempts to introduce an amnesty for “On the Run’s.” The plan was defeated in parliament and then Hain went and did exactly what the legislature had prevented him from doing. This episode crystallises perfectly the abject contempt for parliamentary democracy displayed by Blair, Hain et al. That contempt from Hain a white Kenyan / South African who first came to prominence supporting democracy against apartheid South Africa is particularly ironic.
Another group treated with contempt of course has been the electorate. Nowhere in the Belfast agreement was an amnesty suggested. Indeed the maximum sentence of two years was an extremely bitter pill for many to swallow: not just victims, nor only unionists. It is often forgotten that the level of support garnered by the Belfast Agreement was a significant achievement: at times it looked as though the majority might have been significantly lower than 70%. Just before the referendum Blair made a series of pledges to the electorate. A number of those were effectively reneged upon but had it been clear that there was going to be an amnesty for anyone it is highly likely that not only unionist support for the agreement would have plummeted.
The next group treated with contempt were the victims. They have been repeatedly consulted only to have the majority of their views studiously ignored. The overwhelming majority have repeatedly opposed an amnesty and have stated a preference for the current (prior to last week) situation to any amnesty. Since an amnesty for at least some terrorists was already underway the Eames Bradley group seems to have been an even more pointless and cynical exercise than it appeared when it was being conducted and released. Eames Bradley may well have created a defacto road map for an amnesty but it claimed to oppose one. That Bradley claims to have known all along about these procedures raises the question of what Eames and the others knew about it and when. If they knew all along did why were they utterly dishonest about it and if not when did they know or what now do they think about being led such a merry dance by Bradley and the British government which especially in Eames’ case has had major negative repercussions for their standing in the community.
Another group who have been treated contemptuously or else were in on the deceit are Haass and his group. Only a few weeks ago they were here considering these sorts of issues (amongst others) yet now we learn that part of it had actually been decided years ago.
This scandal seems to be abating somewhat. Actually it should not. Peter Robinson was entirely correct to demand a judicial enquiry. Such an enquiry should be able to demand answers from all the leading architects of this sordid deal including Blair and Hain. The reality is that they have displayed contempt for victims, the people of Northern Ireland and even for parliament. This is in some ways a more serious scandal than that over the Dodgy Dossier on Iraq. In tis case not only was parliament mislead but its wishes were directly reversed by the executive. Whilst Robinson might feel it reasonable to await the outcome of the current promised enquiry, unless it enlarges its terms of reference and delivers way about expectations, it will not be anything like adequate. Then in a few weeks it will be much more difficult for Robinson to repeat his threats of resignation.