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.
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