Tony Blair to face OTRs’ grilling by MPs

The Commons Northern Ireland select committee delving into the undergrowth of the On the Runs controversy have won one major battle but lost a separate skirmish with the NIO. Tony Blair has surrendered to their pressure and will appear before them next Tuesday. However, Theresa Villiers and the Northern Ireland Office are being unnecessarily defensive in refusing to allow officials who were directly involved in the letters scheme to give evidence alone. At very short notice – and after the civil service head of the NIO had got a savaging over a familiar piece of civil service prevarication  ( “It wasn’t me Guv, I wasn’t there at the time”) – Villiers with No 10 approval (instigation?) barred the appearance of two officials  who certainly were.

Shortly after noon, Ms Villiers wrote to MPs once refusing to allow the officials to appear: “This letter makes clear that while the Government fully respects the right of the Committee to inquire into any matter of its choosing and to seek evidence where it wishes, it is an important point of principle that it is Ministers rather than officials who are accountable to Parliament for the policies, actions and decisions of their departments.

However, in the light of the Committee’s latest request, the Secretary of State has indicated that she would be willing to appear again alongside Sir Jonathan Stephens, and she will also invite the officials that the Committee have asked to see to attend with her,” said a NIO spokesperson.

One of the officials, Mark Sweeney, who now works with the Cabinet Office in Whitehall, personally signed the letter that was wrongly issued to John Downey, who was wanted for prosecution on charges that he murdered four British Army soldiers in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

His prosecution was stayed by an Old Bailey judge, who declared that the Donegal man could not be tried because he had relied on the letter of comfort issued in 2007 to travel through Gatwick Airport in 2013 on the way to a Greek holiday.

The principle of ministerial accountability Villiers invoked has often been modified for select committees. Civil servants can be called to account for their direct handling of  policy implementation.  No more direct role in a policy can be imagined such as signing an OTR letter as  had been  disclosed in court that Mark Sweeney did, so his explanation is relevant. It may not have helped though that the perm sec Jonathan Stephens got a bollocking. MPs have to tread carefully in cases where the appearances are subject to ministerial override. Theresa Villiers wasn’t there at the time either and stopped the OTRs scheme. But acting as chaperone to officials explaining a policy she wasn’t responsible for may still be seen as inhibiting their candour before the MPs.

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  • Morpheus

    What does this committee expect to get from Mark Sweeney?

    “Did you sign the letter sent to Mr Downey?”
    “Yes”
    “Were you aware that there was a mistake in it?”
    “No, I was assured that all the necessary checks were carried out.”
    “Would you have signed it if you knew there was a mistake?”
    “No”
    “OK, have a nice day”

  • barnshee

    “No, I was assured that all the necessary checks were carried out.”

    Who carried out the checks?
    Who advised you that they were carried out?
    Who decided the checks were adequate?

    It all depends on how far the ” troops” are prepared to go to protect the decision maker/minister concerned (Looking forward to toe rag Tony and “Permatan” Hain looking sincere as they deny any knowledge whilst avoiding responsibility)

    It will all be a mistake by (an already safely retired) official down the food chain somewhere– while the real filth slide off sideways

  • Brian Walker

    Oh lots and lots of questions, Morpheus. Your cynicism gets in the way… For example..

    Was signing carried out on the nod when a letter appeared on your desk?

    Did you check ever check letters out again with the PSNI?

    Did you ever refer to the UK Attorney General’s dept?

    What sort of file did the NIO keep on OTR letters?

    How was signing authority distributed among officials?

    Was the signing role voluntary or an integral part of the job?
    Could you have declined to take part?

    Was there a uniform protocol for signing? If so how was it
    decided? If not, on what basis did you sign?

    Were reviews of the policy and its implementation ever carried out?

    As you were appending your own name to letters, how did you feel about the process?

  • Neil

    It all depends on how far the ” troops” are prepared to go to protect the decision maker/minister concerned (Looking forward to toe rag Tony and “Permatan” Hain looking sincere as they deny any knowledge whilst avoiding responsibility)

    Ergo, a major ‘victory’ in getting Blair to appear, so like with Hain and Powell we can choose not to believe a word he says. This major victory is going to be an utter failure for those looking for a smoking gun, Blair will confirm that the DUP knew all about it but were concerned only with ensuring the damage went the UUP’s way.

    Not that it matters much anyway, as we see people know what Blair is going to tell them and the insinuation that he’s lying is out there prior to him even opening his mouth.

  • Morpheus

    Was signing carried out on the nod when a letter appeared on your desk?
    No. I was assured that all checks were completed professionally and diligently and I signed the letter on that basis.

    Did you check ever check letters out again with the PSNI?
    I expected the PSNI to have carried out their tasks professionally and diligently and I signed the letter on that basis.

    Did you ever refer to the UK Attorney General’s dept?
    The Attorney General signed off on the scheme and played an integral part in it’s implementation.

    What sort of file did the NIO keep on OTR letters?
    A black, lever-arch one.

    How was signing authority distributed among officials?
    Signing this letter was one of my responsibilities and I had received assurances that all checks had been carried out diligently and professionally so I signed it. Why would I not? Evidently double-checking all the letters is a process that takes years so I signed on the basis that the checks had been carried out professionally and diligently the first time around.

    Was the signing role voluntary or an integral part of the job?
    I signed it so evidently it was one of my responsibilities

    Could you have declined to take part?
    Why would I have declined to take part? It was an approved scheme and I was assured all necessary checks had been carried out professionally and diligently.

    Was there a uniform protocol for signing? If so how was it decided? If not, on what basis did you sign?
    I signed on the basis that all appropriate checks had been carried out professionally and diligently

    Were reviews of the policy and its implementation ever carried out?
    Evidently not if the Downy case was stayed as a direct result

    As you were appending your own name to letters, how did you feel about the process?

    How I felt about about the process is irrelevant I was doing my job and I did it to the best of my ability and I refute any allegations to the contrary.

    Have a nice day.

  • barnshee

    ” Blair will confirm that the DUP knew all about it but were concerned only with ensuring the damage went the UUP’s way.”

    Really looking forward to the DUPERS being caught out

  • barnshee

    Just keep asking-The old favourites

    WHO did WHAT WHEN and WHERE did they do it- but especially WHO

    (It wasn`t me guv honest I was in USA/Israel/S Africa- nooo nooo it was not me— ah WHO was it ? well that is a real hard one I know it WAS NOT me— but WHO?– I really don’t know perhaps we could ask -but (S)he is now long retired– would hardly be fair to ask him/her and I am certain they were acting in good faith in the wider public interest.Best put the whole thing down to human error– no point in raking over old coals sorry about all that etc etc continue until boredom sets in)

  • Morpheus

    The reply button is obviously broken so I will start up here.

    OK, let’s talk real world.

    A minion has passed you administrative documents to sign and you have had every reassurance possible that the content has been verified as correct by highly trained professionals. Do you double-check the contents of every single document – a process that would take a team of 30 7 or 8 years to complete at an untold cost – or trust your team and sign them, safe in the knowledge that all checks have been performed diligently? Without using the 20-20 hindsight that there was a problem with one of the documents there isn’t a single person reading this who wouldn’t have done the same as what this guy did.

    This committee is a farce. It started with a conclusion and is working its way back to find any evidence they can to back it up.

  • Brian Walker

    What’s interesting about this episode to me is not whether you
    think there’s anything left to inquire into anything post-Hallet or not.For what it’s worth I think these public hearings are justified on accountability grounds. Hallett heard her evidence in private, It’s
    the fact that ministers who actually opposed the policy and ended it seem to be tying themselves in knots over allowing civil servants who carried it out from explaining themselves.

    Stephens’ appearance here is most peculiar. He had appeared with Villiers earlier to give an account of where the government stood. Then he turns up again to say the ministers will shortly send the committee a letter saying whether or not they’ll allow the named
    civil servants to appear. He didn’t know what the letter would say but agreed when pressed it would be unusual for “junior” officials ( Sweeney was a deputy director general then) to appear. He then had a go at telling the committee what Sweeney and Case might say – although he admitted to Sylvia Hermon he hadn’t actually spoken
    to them and that he was relying on evidence to Hallett .She quite naturally shoots him down. David Simpson DUP MP for Upper Bann almost takes pity on him and says he’s a fall guy “ put up to do your
    duty.”

    Later Villiers’ letter arrives offering to appear along with Sweeney and Case ( Case is a private sec to the PM). This suggests at the
    very least, confusion in government involving No 10 and the NIO and a last minute decision to be transparent after all and not to spare Sweeney’s and Case’s blushes – two guys well able to look after themselves. Why all the fumbling which made the perm sec look silly?

  • Bet Blair’s office has been given a list of questions and will be delivered in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. Will any of the MPs bin the script? Especially, will the Chairman allow?

  • Morpheus

    It doesn’t matter what he says. Minds are already made up and the conclusions have already been reached…we are just going through the motions now before we can pick out the bits that suit and brush the bits that don’t under the carpet.

  • Neil

    Determined to assume Blair’s lying if he doesn’t say what you want to hear much? Maybe he’ll confirm what Powell said in his book about 6 years before anyone cared. Not that it will matter much to people who are already preparing alternative ‘scripts’ to discount before the man’s even said a word.

  • chrisjones2

    You seem soooooo keen to cover this up

  • chrisjones2

    Who authorized that the format of the letters be changed from that the police and DPP understood would be sent?

    Why was that change made?
    Who drafted the new version?
    On what advice?
    Why were the DPP and PSNI not informed?
    Did Ministers sign it off or officials?
    What contract was there with Downing Street?
    Who changed the process from one of the DPP writing to individuals to the NIO writing to Gerry Kelly?
    Why?
    Did Ministers know of this?
    Why were other parties not told of this?
    Who decided not to tell victims of the change?

    etc etc etc

  • chrisjones2

    Why dont you give evidence yourself old chap. You seem soooo knowledgeable on this

  • Morpheus

    Not really, I just read stuff without blinkers on

  • Morpheus

    This AGAIN???????? How many times do you need telling? I have shown you what the SoS said was in the letters and shown you actual copies of the letters, what else does it take? It’s embarrassing dude.

    Or are you trying to suggest that a letter was changed from someone being ‘wanted’ to being ‘not wanted’? If so a trip to the PSNI is in order ASAP

    I am still waiting on that fraternity thing by the way

  • Morpheus

    No, not really. I’m just capable of independent thought. Try it

  • chrisjones2

    You are in a rut my friend… ask yourself why Tony doesn’t want to answer any questions ….. could it be because it is hard to lie consistenetly?

  • chrisjones2

    Was signing carried out on the nod when a letter appeared on your desk?
    No. I was assured that all checks were completed professionally and diligently and I signed the letter on that basis.

    Did you check ever check letters out again with the PSNI?
    I expected the PSNI to have carried out their tasks professionally and diligently and I signed the letter on that basis.

    Did you ever refer to the UK Attorney General’s dept?
    The Attorney General signed off on the scheme and played an integral part in it’s implementation.

    What sort of file did the NIO keep on OTR letters?
    A black, lever-arch one.

    How was signing authority distributed among officials?
    Signing this letter was one of my responsibilities and I had received assurances that all checks had been carried out diligently and professionally so I signed it. Why would I not? Evidently double-checking all the letters is a process that takes years so I signed on the basis that the checks had been carried out professionally and diligently the first time around.

    Was the signing role voluntary or an integral part of the job?
    I signed it so evidently it was one of my responsibilities

    Could you have declined to take part?
    Why would I have declined to take part? It was an approved scheme and I was assured all necessary checks had been carried out professionally and diligently.

    Who assured you? WHen? In writing or verbally? Did you see the legal advice on what you were doing and the content of the letters? If not, why not?

    Was there a uniform protocol for signing? If so how was it decided? If not, on what basis did you sign?

    I signed on the basis that all appropriate checks had been carried out professionally and diligently

    BUt given the import of what you were doing, what checks did you make? WHat instructions were you given? Who by? Did you make that judgement yourself? Who was your line manager? What did they say / do? Were you briefed on the whole system from nose to tail or just the little bit you did?

    Were reviews of the policy and its implementation ever carried out?
    Evidently not if the Downy case was stayed as a direct result
    .
    WHy not? Did you have any concerns personally? Did you raise these with Managers?

    As you were appending your own name to letters, how did you feel about the process?

    How I felt about about the process is irrelevant I was doing my job and I did it to the best of my ability and I refute any allegations to the contrary.

    Did you have any concerns at all given that the AG had concerns? How did you reassure yourself? In hindsight would you sign them now?

    There are no so blind as those who will not see. They cannot even read the time

  • chrisjones2

    If you think the NIO hasn’t put blinkers on you i fear that you are in credibly naiive

  • chrisjones2

    and i have made it quite clear as has Hallett ….. a process was agreed with the law officers, PSNI and the DPP. Checks were supposed to be carried out by different parties at different stages

    The Government then secretly changed major parts of the process and started sending out letters different from those agreed and didn’t tell the other parties

    Why? Who authorised that?

    And the victims were never told. Why? WHo authorised that?

  • Morpheus

    Yes, that’s what it is *groan*

    What exactly do you expect him to say?

    “Yes I instructed the Attorney General, the NIO, heads of multiple police forces and multiple investigative police officers at various levels of command from all over the UK to change whatever evidence they had to ensure that these 200+ people [most of whom weren’t even wanted for questioning, the police didn’t know about and for crimes they didn’t know were committed] got letters saying they weren’t wanted when in reality they were.”

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/files/2009/04/tinfoil-hat.jpg

    Take it off man, you look pathetic

  • Morpheus

    NIO???? I’m not even going to ask….

    Pathetic

  • Morpheus

    Put up or shut up time…

    Are you SERIOUSLY trying to suggest that letters were changed to ensure that people who had the status of ‘wanted’ were changed to ‘not wanted’?

    If so, which recipients had their letters changed in this way, for what purpose were they changed and what evidence do you have to support this? Have you been to the PSNI with it?

    I’ll point you again to the what the SoS said was in the letters:

    ““The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been informed by the Attorney General that on the basis of the information currently available, there is no outstanding direction for prosecution in Northern Ireland, there are no warrants in existence nor are you wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charge by the police. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not aware of any interest in you from any other police force in the United Kingdom. If any other outstanding offence or offences came to light, or if any request for extradition were to be received, these would have to be dealt with in the usual way.”

    Then I’ll direct you to The Hallett Review which shows the actual letters. Now, what are your assertions based on? Or is it more of a case of…

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/files/2009/04/tinfoil-hat.jpg