On March 1 2007, the then Secretary of State Peter Hain answered a written Parliamentary question by Lady Hermon.
His answer, and yesterday’s Government-backed review of the on the runs shambles, has profound implications for the integrity of Parliament.
The North Down MP asked Mr Hain “pursuant to the answer of 5 February 2007, “on the runs”, what measures the Government are considering to deal with on the runs other than further legislation or an amnesty”.
Mr Hain responded so categorically that it makes it very difficult to now wriggle: “None....the Government do not have any current proposals for doing so.”
In light of that answer (and a previous denial to Peter Robinson), given by the man who just three months earlier was involved in setting up ‘Operation Rapid’, it might have been expected that Mr Hain would be lying low yesterday.
Not so. Instead, Mr Hain told the Commons that the “exemplary report” showed that “no minister misled anybody”.
It is true that, as Dame Hallett found, over many years there was evidence that something was happening with the on the runs. Yet it was far from clear what exactly was going on and, crucially, when questions were asked in Parliament, Mr Hain, the Government’s representative, was categorical in his denial. Engaging in what appear to be semantics, Dame Hallett said that the letters were not “secret” but were “below the radar”.
Unionist politicians may have taken their eye off the ball, but they have a strong defence when they can point to Mr Hain’s words in Parliament.
Dame Hallett euphemistically described Mr Hain’s misleading answers as a “lack of precision”, which created the “potential for misunderstanding” — apparently oblivious to the exceptional precision which goes into crafting Parliamentary answers. Dame Hallett’s apparent lack of concern at Mr Hain’s actions has ramifications for Parliament’s reputation. There will be those who see this as further evidence that Parliament can have the wool deliberately pulled over its eyes — or outright misled —if the phrase ‘peace process’ is invoked.
That not only undermines confidence in the process it purports to support, but undermines the power of the Commons. The fact that Dame Hallett’s finding on Mr Hain is so at variance with the natural and ordinary meaning of his actions undermines her findings in more complex areas of the saga.