A former Labour MP who had an intense interest in Northern Ireland has accused his former government of misleading Parliament over the ‘letters of comfort’ to IRA fugitives.
Andrew MacKinlay, a veteran Labour MP who retired in 2010, told the News Letter that he believed the House of Commons had been “contemptuously bypassed” over the scheme.
On Thursday, a voluminous report into the ‘administrative scheme’ whereby the letters were issued to IRA ‘on the runs’ (OTRs), said that although there had been serious problems with the scheme it was not illegal and had not been kept secret from Parliament or the public.
Lady Justice Hallett, who was appointed by the Prime Minister to examine the scheme, commented in her report that there had been a “lack of precision” in some Parliamentary answers from ministers, which had created the “potential for misunderstanding”.
That was an apparent reference to ex Secretary of State Peter Hain’s response to a written Commons question from Lady Hermon in early 2007.
She asked, in relation to the on the runs, “what measures the Government are considering to deal with on the runs other than further legislation or an amnesty”.
Mr Hain, writing at a point when the scheme was accelerating, replied: “None.”
Mr MacKinlay, who lived in Northern Ireland for a period, said he was dismayed at how the House of Commons had been treated.
“The so-called side deals – made exclusively and in secret with Sinn Fein – meant that Parliament was contemptuously bypassed,” he said.
“Parliament had a right to be both consulted, and to approve, any agreements. Parliament was shamefully cheated of this opportunity.”
Mr MacKinlay said that in his experience the NIO had been “not only extremely slow in replying to Parliamentary questions, but invariably, deliberately ambiguous and lacking in candour”.
And, contrary to the recommendations of Lady Hallett, he said that he believed that those who received Royal pardons should now be named.
“The repeated refusal of Teresa Villiers to issue the names of people who are beneficiaries of the Royal prerogative of mercy is indefensible,” he said.
“Even if there is a case for not releasing the names of the people who hold ‘the OTR administrative letters’ – which incidentally I do not accept – there can be no case or precedent for refusing to give the names of those who have received the Royal prerogative.
“There is a qualitative difference. If one accepts the Secretary of State’s statement that the OTR letters are not providing an amnesty – and that prosecutions can still arise if fresh or new evidence becomes available so therefore disclosure could prejudice future prosecutions – there is an argument which has at least some legitimacy.
“However, that argument cannot apply in relation to the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy which is absolute, final ... signed, sealed and delivered. It is by definition, and in constitutional law, irrevocable.
“It is precisely for that reason that the names should be disclosed. There is not another western democratic country, where it would be possible for the Government or executive branch not to disclose such names.”
When asked if, during his time as a Labour MP with a keen interest in Northern Ireland, he had ever got wind of the ‘letters of comfort’, Mr MacKinlay said: “We never ever had any indication about the existence of these letters in Parliament. Why? The answer is quite simple. The government knew that if they disclosed this to Parliament, and the people, there would’ve been one hell of a bloody row.
“It would never have been acceptable to the House of Commons. So far as I’m concerned, there has been deliberate and conscious deceit of Parliament, the public as a whole and, most importantly, grieving victims.
Mr MacKinlay also said what many in Northern Ireland have long feared – that most at Westminster have little interest in the Province.
The former MP for Thurrock said that he believed it was possible for the on the runs scheme to remain hidden for so long because there is little scrutiny of Northern Ireland affairs at Westminster.
He said that the Labour Government had been able to act as it had done because of Tony Blair’s big majority, meaning that it could “treat Parliament as a bit of a nuisance”.
He added: “When it came to Ireland, the painful reality was that so few MPs of the 600-plus are interested in Irish – or Northern Irish – matters.”
Mr MacKinlay, who was first elected as a Labour councillor more than four decades ago, said that he had taken an active interest in Northern Ireland from 1992.
•See Morning View in Comment section