A Westminster inquiry into the IRA comfort letters could begin within a fortnight and is likely to require the attendance of Tony Blair, Peter Hain and Martin McGuinness, its chairman last night said.
As anticipated in Saturday’s News Letter, the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee yesterday voted to begin an investigation into the ‘administrative scheme’.
The probe follows that set up by the Prime Minister last week but which the committee criticised as having been given “too narrow” a remit.
The committee agreed unanimously to start its own investigation due to what it said were shortcomings in the first inquiry’s remit.
The committee’s chairman, Tory Laurence Robertson, said that it had been unanimous in its decision to hold the inquiry, saying that members believed the terms of reference of the judge-led review “are too narrow”. He added: “There is also concern that evidence will be taken in private during that inquiry, when, in fact, it is the secrecy of the on the runs scheme which has contributed greatly to the problems. There is concern also that the judge will be unable to compel people to attend as witnesses.”
Mr Robertson told the News Letter that he understood First Minister Peter Robinson was “quite happy with the news”. And he said that the committee — which unlike the Prime Minister’s inquiry can compel unwilling witnesses to attend — was likely to call former Prime Minister Tony Blair, his chief of staff Jonathan Powell, former Secretary of State Peter Hain, the law officers at the time, police officers, civil servants, current Conservative ministers and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
On Thursday, Mr Robinson said that the Prime Minister’s review had “satisfied” his demands and said he was “happy with the terms of reference that have since been set out”.
He added: “I think the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have been prompt, they have dealt with the issues seriously and in a manner that is satisfactory to me. So yes, I do not intend to resign on the basis that if you get what you want why on earth would you want to resign?”
Yesterday David Simpson, who with Ian Paisley Jnr represents the DUP on the committee, said: “It is a long time since I have witnessed such agreement amongst the committee members. Everyone was agreed that this underhand and immoral scheme needed to be fully investigated.”
He added: “We welcome the other inquiries and investigations already in place and trust as we all work to expose the truth we will go some way to restore public confidence in our justice system.”
Ulster-born former Labour minister Kate Hoey said: “Members unanimously agreed on this as we all felt very strongly that as much information as possible should be out in the open for the public to judge how we have got into this situation.”
TUV leader Jim Allister welcomed the new inquiry and claimed the judge-led review was “shaping up to be a whitewash”. He added: “I also note with interest that the committee shares my feelings about the mini review announced by the Prime Minister and meekly accepted by the DUP.”
UUP peer Lord Empey also welcomed the new investigation and added: “It is ironic that David Simpson MP has been very vocal in welcoming this investigation when his own party leader has said he is happy with the terms of reference of the judge-led inquiry announced by the Prime Minister last week.”