The article below, dated June 2007, by Belfast Telegraph reporter, Chris Thornton highlights two potentially destructive pitfalls in the path of the still not-quite-stable peace process in Northern Ireland.
One is that the trickery and sleight of hand that characterised Tony Blair’s handling of the Iraq invasion, and pretty much everything else during his time as British prime minister, was also evident in his dealings over the peace process in Northern Ireland. The other is the potential of the past to hold the future hostage.
Reading Chris’ piece it is quite apparent that Blair told the DUP one thing about the way wanted IRA fugitives – ‘on-the-runs’ or OTR’s – would be treated and quite another to the Provos. The Shinners were seemingly told that the OTR’s, some 187 of them, would not be pursued by the police. The DUP on the other hand appear to have been told that the OTR’s would get no special treatment and would be hauled before the courts if caught. But no public announcement was made, meaning officially the issue remained unresolved.
It is all very typical of the chicanery and dissimulation that Blair employed when he played politics; all that mattered was the endgame. How you got there, who you lied to and what happened way in the future in terms of damage was secondary to getting results in the here and now. And even if people did eventually find him out, it would probably be too late to make a difference.
Except the issue of the OTR’s touches the third rail in NI politics, the unresolved issue of the past, of who did what to whom and why and who, ultimately, is to blame for the violence of three and a half decades? Unlike most of the domestic English and Welsh issues which Blair and New Labour dealt with in this way, the matter of blame for the Troubles is something that could only be dealt with honestly and openly.
Anyway read Chris Thornton’s article and make up your own minds (incidentally I did a pretty comprehensive search of newspaper archives and Chris’s was the last article on OTR’s in any of the major Irish newspapers until the recent Downey row):
More than 100 republicans still on run from justice
By Chris Thornton
22 June 2007
(c)2007 Independent News & Media (Northern Ireland). All Rights Reserved.
Dozens already cleared to return but ‘no plans for fresh legislation’
Another 84 OTRs – the initials stand for on the runs – have already been cleared to return to Northern Ireland without facing jail time, according to statistics released to the Belfast Telegraph by the Attorney General’s office.
That includes almost 50 people who spent at least a decade on the run but who were never wanted in the first place.
Material released under the Freedom of Information Act shows the number of OTRs is far higher than previous estimates.
The names of almost 200 people have been passed to the Government by Sinn Fein over the past seven years, while London wrestled with mechanisms to allow them to return.
The most recent list was passed last September – a month before the DUP declared it had killed off the issue.
During the eight years that OTRs have been a political issue, one fugitive has been recaptured. Michael Rogan stood trial for bombing Thiepval Barracks and was cleared in 2005.
Of the 193 other people whose cases have been considered, 84 have been told they are free to return without fear of arrest.
Forty-seven have spent at least the last decade thinking they were being sought by police, but the Attorney General said checks have shown they were not wanted by any police force in the UK.
Outstanding warrants were dropped in 15 cases when the Director of Public Prosecutions decided there was not a sufficient case to bring to court.
Another 22 had already been convicted: 11 of them – mainly Maze escapees – had served the two years in prison necessary to qualify for early release under the Good Friday Agreement.
The other 11 – including escapees from the Crumlin Road jail who were sentenced but did not serve time – were freed under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.
Currently, 75 people remain wanted, and they form a sticky political wicket for the Government.
Prime Minister Tony Blair had promised Sinn Fein he would allow the fugitives to return, but attempts at legislation have twice run into the sand.
Sinn Fein says there is an anomaly that needs to be resolved, but the DUP says the Government has killed off the issue and there will be no further moves to allow OTRs to return.
There have been suggestions that the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, could drop their cases in the public interest.
But the legal authorities have resisted that suggestion, with Lord Goldsmith declaring that the offences concerned are too serious to be dropped.
Of the 75 people who remain wanted, eight are wanted for return to prison, meaning they have not served sufficient sentences for an Agreement release.
Another 46 are wanted for questioning by police and 21 are wanted to face trial.
Another 34 cases are still being reviewed by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Previous published estimates of the number of OTR cases put them far lower than the 194 now confirmed by the Government.
Between 60 and 80 names were thought to have been put forward by Sinn Fein, although some republicans accurately forecast 200 names at an early stage of the process.
The Northern Ireland Office said it accepts that the issue of OTRs will have to be dealt with at some stage.
A spokesman said: The Government’s position on OTRs remains the same: we accept that OTRs are in an anomalous position and the issue will need to be addressed at some stage, but we have no plans for legislation or amnesties.
That’s not the DUP’s understanding. Last year, it declared that this matter is put to rest once and for all.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said at the time: The Prime Minister has made it clear that there is going to be no amnesty for IRA terrorists on the run.
Neither will it be done by reintroducing the deeply offensive legislation or by some kind of back door deal.
Sinn Fein once indicated that Tony Blair would deal with the issue before leaving office, but that now looks unlikely.
The Attorney General’s office refused to disclose the names of those individuals who are wanted, saying it could cut the chance of them being caught.
The Belfast Telegraph will appeal that decision on the basis that details of the case have been given to third parties, and presumably those individuals know they are on the wanted list.