Former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain may have been economical with the truth over “comfort letters” issued to so-called on-the-runs, the deputy leader of the DUP said today.
Belfast North MP Nigel Dodds suggested that the Labour former cabinet secretary may have misled Parliament when asked about how the Government intended to deal with suspected Irish republicans on the run.
Speaking in the Commons, he described the policy as “a dirty deal”.
He said: “I think it would be important to hear in this House, on the record, from those previous ministers as to whether or not they stand over some of the statements that they made in this House, because when one reads them, it is very very clear that there was certainly an economy when it came to the truthfulness of what was being said.”
Mr Dodds was speaking during a debate on the High Court judgment in the case of John Downey, who was accused of the 1982 IRA murder of four soldiers in the Hyde Park bombing.
The trial collapsed after Mr Downey, who denied the charges, produced a letter from the Northern Ireland Office assuring him that he was not wanted by the police, even though police in Northern Ireland knew he was still being sought by Scotland Yard.
Referring to a question by Peter Robinson on October 11 2006, Mr Dodds said “the Secretary of State, the then member for Neath, Peter Hain, would reassure the House that no other procedure will be used to allow the on the run terrorists to return”.
Mr Dodds said: “The (then) secretary of state answered: ‘There is no other procedure’.”
Mr Dodds said that Lady Hermon, independent MP for North Down, subsequently asked a question in terms of the House on March 1 2007 “about measures that the Government are considering to deal with on the runs other than further legislation or an amnesty”.
He said Mr Hain replied, simply: “None”.
Speaking in today’s debate, Lady Hermon said it “is with considerable regret that Mr Hain is not here today”.
She added in his defence “that he was attending the funeral, quite properly, of his colleague and dear friend Tony Benn. And that I do know that he also has a family commitment today.”
Mr Dodds told the House that the “real bombshell” came following the collapse of Mr Downey’s case, when the full extent of the scheme became known and that nearly 200 Republicans had been sent comfort letters.
He said: “This scheme was not the subject of any parliamentary debate, discussion or scrutiny at any time over many, many years. It had no statutory or legal basis; there was no public awareness of the scheme.
“This was done as a dirty deal behind the backs of everybody concerned.”
He added: “In the case of Downey, for him, in his circumstances, this amounted to, in fact, an amnesty. That’s the reality of it.”
Mr Dodds said: “We need to find out how all of this happened, who knew, when they knew. We need to examine the legality of it. We also then need to make sure that another Downey case never happens and that these kinds of letters have nil effect when it comes to the issue of being able to stay prosecutions.”
Mr Dodds welcomed the fact that there were now a number of reviews and inquiries under way, including also one by the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI).
A team of 16 detectives has been assigned to the review; they will investigate the circumstances of each individual who received a letter and will also re-examine the original checks carried out by the specialist PSNI team, Mr Dodds said.
MPs said the letters scheme has compounded loyalist perceptions that justice in Northern Ireland was biased in favour of Sinn Fein.
Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long said that even republicans who had fallen out of favour with the Sinn Fein leadership complained about the scheme as it did not apply to then.
She said: “There has been, over recent years, a perception in the loyalist community in particular that justice acts in a way that is deferential and not to their benefit.
“That is the perception, I have to say, which I have not shared, but I am hugely aggrieved that, as a result of this, that perception has been compounded.
“Because no loyalists had access to this scheme, no members of the security services had access to this scheme.
“Only members of Sinn Fein, who came through Sinn Fein, had access to this scheme.
“In fact there are complaints from other republicans who fell out of favour with the leadership that they weren’t even able to access this scheme.
“So justice, in fact, in Northern Ireland was acting in a partial way during that process and that has undermined confidence in the public. It has further damaged people’s respect for the PSNI, who have been, by implication, asked to do this job by the government of the day and did it as they were asked to do and is their duty.”
Northern Ireland Committee chair Laurence Roberston described the scheme as “one-sided”.
He said: “I do not believe in any amnesties. If republicans have committed crimes they should be charged, if loyalists have committed crimes they should be charged, if members of the security forces have committed crimes they should be charged.
“But this seems to be a one-sided scheme.
“The fact that the government in 2005 tried to open it up to everybody but was then rejected by all parties and withdrawn because we do not believe in amnesties.
“But it seems there is a scheme for certain members of the community and not others and that simply cannot be right.”
Mr Robertson added that, for political reasons, the stayed judgment in the Downey case should have been appealed even without any prospect of overturning it.
But Attorney General Dominic Grieve said the Crown Prosecution Service cannot make decisions on a political basis.
Mr Robertson said: “If a stay cannot be appealed then it cannot be appealed.
“But if, as the Attorney General is suggesting, there is no prospect of overturning that judgment, in my view as a non-lawyer, that should be considered for appeal because I really do think it’s extraordinary that a letter which appears to be ambiguously worded can take on greater importance than a charge of multiple murder.
“It is extraordinary and I don’t know whether it’s unique but it’s certainly extremely unusual.”
Intervening, Mr Grieve said: “The decisions of the Crown Prosecution Service cannot be taken on a political basis.”
Ms Long also told the Commons that her party had been clear that “side dealing” and “secret dealing would end up being the undoing of the peace process, not its underpinning”.
She went on: “Because the truth will out, and when it does the ramifications of it having been kept secret in the first place are as significant as the deal originally done.
“It’s better to face the truth in a timely way and deal with the consequences of failure there and then than to continue with a charade and a false perception of progress, which is then shaken to its core when these things later emerge.
“And I feel very strongly that this has undermined people’s confidence in the process and a lot of work will need to be done to restore that.”
Ms Long said hat, despite Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers’ assurances that the letters do not act as amnesties, it remains to be seen how a court would view them.
Conservative Nigel Mills (Amber Valley), a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, said the letters for on-the-runs should not have been handed out unless the public had been informed about the scheme at the beginning.
He said: “I can fully understand to get peace people on all sides had to hold their nose and swallow some things they really didn’t want to swallow and maybe this was on of those things people ought to have had to swallow.
“Perhaps we should have been transparent and said ‘Look, there can’t be any peace without some solution to the on-the-runs’.
“Maybe that should have been in the Belfast Agreement, maybe it should have been in the referendum, maybe it should have been part of it.
“But it wasn’t and therefore the fact that it wasn’t means it shouldn’t have happened. It can either be there, everyone accepts it, everyone knows about it, or you don’t do it.
“I think this kind of secret thing is perhaps one of the greatest insults - justice has been circumvented in secret.”
Mr Mills questioned why the letters existed unless everyone involved believed it gave them a right to avoid prosecution.
Ms Villiers intervened to tell Mr Mills that the letters did not offer an amnesty nor a “get-out-of-jail-free card”.
She said: “They were statements of facts about a person’s status in relation to the police and prosecuting authorities of a particular time.
“The reason for the judgment in the John Downey case was he was sent a letter that was factually incorrect. The letter said he was not wanted by the police when he was. It was a fact of that mistake, the fact the letter was incorrect, and Mr Downey acted on this letter - that was the basis of the judgment in the Downey case, not the fact of the letter itself.”
Mr Mills replied he was still finding it hard to understand the purpose of the letter if it did not offer something the recipient could rely on.
He went on: “This gentleman was carrying the letter round with him every time he entered the UK. Why would he do that if it could be superseded at some point?”
Mr Mills added legislation in Parliament or through the Northern Ireland Assembly may be required to clear up the legal position over the letters so they are in the interests of “fair and transparent justice” for the victims.
He said: “We need to discover what the process can be, if anything, to restore the actual position that we think these should be in i.e. they don’t confer any kind of amnesty.
“Now, if that requires a Bill before this House perhaps we should do that. It may require something to go through the Assembly given the devolution of justice, I suspect that may be a political challenge in the circumstance.”
Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said he was concerned about the partiality of a scheme which only appeared to offer protection to terrorists and not other parties to The Troubles.
The Tory MP for Aldershot said: “There clearly probably had to be a scheme of some sort to deal with the on the runs, and inevitably there was going to be some sort of messy outcome.
“This does raise again the issue of the treatment of the soldiers in Londonderry on January 30, 1972, and furthermore it has been exacerbated by the decision of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to erect posters in Londonderry... appealing for witnesses to come forward to provide evidence about that tragedy.
“We are talking about an event that took place 42 years ago and for the PSNI to be appealing for witnesses now... four years after the Prime Minister made that memorable statement early in his Premiership is astonishing.
“(The scheme) appears to have been and continues to be entirely partial - in other words, this arrangement only applies to former, or those believed to be responsible for, republican terrorism. I think it is a legitimate matter the Secretary of State needs to turn her attention to as to whether this arrangement, to which this Government has quite clearly been party, is fit for purpose.
“These men were doing their level best to hold the ring, to keep the peace. On that day, there was a distinction between them and the rest of the community - they were in the uniform of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, they were clearly visible, they were identifiable. They faced a crowd, confronted by armed men in the shadows, indistinguishable from the civilian crowd.
“I think it is hugely important to differentiate between the cold blooded pre-meditated murder of the kind we saw so many times conducted by republican terrorists, by loyalist terrorists, and the heat of the battle mistakes made by members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
“We have a duty to those soldiers who we sent there and I do think there is a case that natural justice needs to be brought to play in this matter. Surely it is not fair, 42 years on, nearly half a century, these men, doing their best along with 250,000 others who served in Northern Ireland should still have this question mark hovering over them in the evening of their lives.”