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18 July 2014

I don't believe for a minute that peace depended on resolving the OTRs issue

Former Secretary of State Peter Hain says the controversial scheme was necessary to avoid a return to violence. Ruth Dudley Edwards says he fell for a Sinn Fein bluff

First Minister Peter Robinson speaks to the media outside the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, following the publishing of the Hallet Review into controversial amnesties for on the run prisoners
First Minister Peter Robinson speaks to the media outside the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, following the publishing of the Hallet Review into controversial amnesties for on the run prisoners

On February 25, there was outrage after it emerged that the trial of John Downey on four counts of murder relating to the 1982 Hyde Park bombing had collapsed because of misinformation in what was known as an 'on-the-run' letter from the Northern Ireland Office.

Peter Hain, who was Secretary of State for two years from May 2005, rushed to defend himself in an article in The Guardian newspaper the following day.

A man long on self-satisfaction and short on empathy, he explained rather testily: "Despite being attacked and criticised for this process, it was necessary. Just as it was necessary to do 'side deals' with Ian Paisley's DUP, which I also did. Without all these, old and bitter enemies would not have been governing Northern Ireland together as they have now for seven years. Notwithstanding some rigor mortis from the past, we have achieved closure on the horror and violence. I make no apology for that."

Which neatly sums up why Peter Hain is so disliked by ordinary decent people who hate being patronised, underestimated and generally regarded as mugs by those who view principles as rather quaint and old-fashioned.

Faced with one lot of demanding negotiators, Hain's course was to buy them off and then buy off whoever else was shouting loudest.

He seemed unworried by how this damaged the centre ground and how inevitably, when secrets were revealed, it would further deepen public mistrust of politicians and public servants and the hurt of victims.

Lady Justice Hallett says herself that she knew little of Northern Ireland when she took on the job of shining a light on the OTR scheme.

She was variously assured at one end of the spectrum of opinion that it was "secret", "shabby" and "sordid" and at the other, that it was "entirely lawful and proper and one which served a vital role in the promotion of peace in Northern Ireland".

She quickly and efficiently discovered, and now reveals, how the scheme evolved, how it operated, that it was legal, but not thought through, was administered in a cavalier and unaccountable manner and was rife with mal-communication.

While not secret, it was kept as far as possible from public knowledge, which was why the victims of terrorism were so shocked by the implications of Downey's release. And she doesn't presume to judge whether the peace process might have been in jeopardy had those involved been open about the OTR scheme.

I don't believe for a minute that the resolving the issue of OTRs was a prerequisite of peace. Sinn Fein were still using the IRA as a weapon at this stage of negotiations, yet the truth is that after 9/11 – with Irish-America turned anti-terrorist – it was a bluff that Blair, Hain and co were too naive to call.

The OTR mess needs cleaning up now, but in her postscript, Lady Hallett asks that her finding not be used "to make political capital. Those whose lives have been devastated by terrorism deserve better. They have suffered enough."

Amen to that.


July 20, 1982: An IRA bomb attack at London’s Hyde Park kills four Household Cavalry soldiers and seven horses.

1983: John Downey is identified as the suspect and an arrest warrant is issued.

July 20, 2007: The PSNI mistakenly tells Downey he is no longer being sought by Scotland Yard. Downey receives a letter saying he is not wanted in Northern Ireland or the UK when in fact there is an outstanding warrant against him in the UK.

May 19, 2013: Downey is arrested at Gatwick Airport en route to Greece and is subsequently charged with the murder of four soldiers.

February 25, 2014: Downey walks free from the Old Bailey after it emerges he was given a guarantee that he would not face trial. It emerges that 187 terror suspects received a similar letter granting them immunity from prosecution.

February 26: Peter Robinson threatens to resign unless there is a judicial inquiry into the letters. The DUP leader says he is not prepared to remain as First Minister in a power-sharing government “kept in the dark” about such an important matter. Prime Minister David Cameron says Downey should never have been sent the letter, and that it had been a “dreadful mistake”.

February 27: The Prime Minister appoints a judge to lead a review that will report by the end of May, pulling Stormont back from the brink of collapse. Mr Robinson welcomes the inquiry and confirms he will not resign.

March 11: Lady Justice Hallett is appointed to conduct an independent review of the administrative scheme for dealing with on-the-runs.

Downing Street says the terms of reference are to produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme for on-the-runs to determine whether any letters contained errors.

March 13: John Downey insists unionists knew about the secret on-the-runs letters.

April 3: A former senior PSNI officer accuses Downing Street of attempting to pervert the course of justice by asking for the release of republican suspects in March 2007. Former Detective Chief Supintendent Norman Baxter told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster there was “a culture within the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that republicans were not prosecuted” and said the PSNI was scapegoated for the collapse of the Downey case.

June: It emerges the already delayed Hallett report won’t be published before the end of June, as was expected.

June 26: Theresa Villiers confirms the report will be published on July 17.

July 17: Lady Justice Hallett’s review into on-the-run letters is finally published.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards