Firm evidence has emerged which disproves former Secretary of State Peter Hain’s claim that the policy of ‘comfort letters’ issued to IRA fugitives was not a secret.
The evidence — which came from Mr Hain’s own pen in a written Parliamentary answer — shows that he told the House of Commons that the Government had “no current proposals” for addressing the “anomaly” of on the runs.
That answer came just four months after the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, wrote to Gerry Adams. According to last week’s judgment in the John Downey case, Mr Blair told the Sinn Fein president that the Government was “now working with a renewed focus on putting in place mechanisms to resolve all other OTR [on the run] cases” and telling him: “I have always believed that the position of these OTRs is an anomaly which needs to be addressed. Before I leave office I am committed to finding a scheme which will resolve all the remaining cases.”
The following month, the PSNI set up, seemingly at the NIO’s request, Operation Rapid, which was tasked with issuing 187 ‘letters of comfort’ to the NIO who then passed them to Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly.
The re-emergence of the Parliamentary answer has led to allegations that Mr Hain misled the Commons, something the former Labour minister has denied.
Mr Hain was asked by North Down MP Lady Hermon “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”.
In a response on May 1, 2007 — months after the setting up of Operation Rapid — Mr Hain said: “None. As I explained in my previous answer to the hon. Member for North Down, the Government continue to accept that the position of on the runs is an anomaly, and we believe that the anomaly will need to be addressed at some stage.
“However, the Government do not have any current proposals for doing so.”
A month after that answer was given to Parliament, a letter was issued to Downey, who walked free at the Old Bailey last week after the case alleging that he was responsible for the Hyde Park bomb collapsed because of the fact that he had a letter which — in his case, mistakenly — told him that he was free to enter the UK.
First Minister Peter Robinson said that the answer gave credence to the DUP’s assertion that it and other politicians in the Province were misled about the letters.
Mr Robinson highlighted another Parliamentary answer which Mr Hain gave to him in 2006 in which he said that “there is no other scheme” when asked for assurances that there would be no other procedure used to allow on the runs to return in the wake of Mr Hain’s amnesty bill having been withdrawn.
At one point the DUP and Mr Hain were on good terms. But as the relationship between Mr Hain and Mr Robinson appeared to deteriorate severely, Mr Robinson said that DUP MPs would be raising “this clear lack of truthfulness with the Speaker of the House and I look forward to hearing Mr Hain’s explanation”.
He added: “His reply denied the existence of what was a scheme to facilitate fugitives from justice returning. The question must surely be asked, has Peter Hain misled Parliament? He must now explain why he made those comments. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Parliament was intentionally kept in the dark by the Blair administration.”
Mr Hain told The Sunday Times, which yesterday highlighted the Parliamentary answer to Lady Hermon: “I absolutely refute the allegation that I misled the house. Leading politicians in Northern Ireland seem to have contracted amnesia over on the runs. They were aware that, as I told the Commons on January 11, 2006, the Government still believed that the on the runs anomaly ‘will need to be faced at some stage’.”
He added: “There was never any question of an amnesty, nor of some special procedure.”
But Lady Hermon told the paper: “His credibility is on the line...I certainly believe I have been hoodwinked.”
Meanwhile, a survey on the News Letter website has found that the majority of those who took part believe that Mr Robinson did not secure the concessions he demanded from the Government before withdrawing his threat to resign last week.
The survey, which by last night had been responded to by more than 500 people, recorded 87 per cent of respondents believed that Mr Robinson did not get what he wanted.