Former Prime Minister Tony Blair engaged in a “deliberate deception by omission” by failing to tell the majority of politicians in Northern Ireland about the agreement his government struck with Sinn Fein to deal with on-the-run republicans, Stormont’s First Minister has said.
Peter Robinson heavily criticised the conduct of the previous Labour administration as he addressed an emergency meeting at Stormont to debate the controversy over letters sent to more than 180 terror suspects informing them the authorities in the UK were not seeking them.
Democratic Unionist leader Mr Robinson said his predecessor Ian Paisley had written to Mr Blair when he was in power asking for assurances that no concessions had been given to Sinn Fein about on-the-runs (OTRs).
He said the reply stated there were no plans to legislate on the issue, and no amnesty had been offered but, Mr Robinson said, it did not make mention of the administrative scheme to send OTRs assurance letters.
“The answer that there were no plans to legislate and no amnesty would be introduced was a deliberate deception, a deception by omission, for the Government could easily at that stage have indicated that there was an administrative process which included giving letters to OTRs was under way,” he told MLAs
The recalled Assembly convened shortly after another Stormont minister claimed applications for five on-the-run republicans for assurance letters were still being considered by the current government.
The disclosure by Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister David Ford has created uncertainty over whether the administrative scheme is still being run by the coalition Government.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said her predecessor, Conservative MP Owen Paterson, had informed Sinn Fein that no new cases would be dealt with by the current Government, apart from the 38 it inherited on taking office, and had urged the republican party to bring new applications to the devolved authorities at Stormont.
But Mr Ford said his understanding from a discussion with a senior NIO official this morning was that there were five cases still being dealt with by the Government and that those only emerged in late 2012 - more than two years after the Coalition came to power.
Mr Ford said he was assured that the NIO had responsibility for the cases and not his devolved department.
“The senior (NIO) official I spoke to thought there were five cases still under examination and that they were their responsibility,” the Justice Minister said.
Details of 180 plus letters sent to OTRs emerged when the case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed.
John Downey, 62, from Donegal, denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London.
The case against him was ended because government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.
But the collapse shone the light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland reacting with fury, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.
Opening the Assembly debate, Mr Robinson said: “The outcome of the Downey case was morally outrageous and an affront to justice, but more than that it exposed to the full glare of public attention a scheme that had been agreed well over a decade ago by Sinn Fein and the UK Government.
“It was followed by outrage, that outrage, I have to say, was not manufactured or synthetic, it was real, it was an outrage felt by victims, it was an outrage felt by those within the political process that they had been by-passed by the British Government and by Sinn Fein.”
The Stormont Assembly was recalled for the additional sitting following a request by Mr Robinson at the height of this week’s political crisis over the scheme.
When Mr Robinson made the announcement on Wednesday, shortly after he had threatened to resign over the issue, there were fears the future of the power-sharing executive would be on the line during the plenary session.
But those concerns receded last night when the Democratic Unionist leader withdrew his ultimatum in response to an announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron that he was ordering a judge-led review of the matter.
Getting to his feet after Mr Robinson, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of irresponsibly threatening the stability of power sharing.
He claimed the reaction of the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to the OTRs issue was evidence that their thinking was being influenced by loyalist extremists.
He insisted the recall of the Assembly was more about political posturing ahead of forthcoming elections.
“I am frustrated that the stability of these institutions have been irresponsibly threatened this week and a sense of crisis has replaced the much-needed focus that we needed to get agreement on issues relating to the past,” he said.
“I am frustrated that those historically opposed to the peace process and to power-sharing are being allowed to chip away at the process by using legacy issues as a vehicle to pursue their negative and rejectionist agenda.”
He added: “I am frustrated that those extreme loyalists shape the behaviour of the two main unionist parties.”
The emergency debate has been focused on a motion tabled by the DUP expressing disgust at the deal the UK Government struck with Sinn Fein on OTRs.
Addressing a packed Assembly chamber, Mr McGuinness said: “I am frustrated we are here today discussing a motion which is as irresponsible as the threat to collapse this Assembly.
“Today’s recall and motion is about the upcoming election and about the political posturing within unionism .
“Frankly, I believe the people out there deserve better.”
The Sinn Fein veteran said the peace process had been built by politicians showing leadership.
“At many times throughout this process I could have walked away, I could have threatened to resign. I have not done that,” he said.
“I have sought solutions and agreement and we have progressed to where we are today because of those agreements. The peace and political process needs (to be) defended, protected and promoted by all political leaders - it certainly does not need to be threatened.”
As expected, the debate in the Assembly was heated and at times rancorous, with Speaker Willie Hay forced to call for order on numerous occasions as members exchanged brickbats across the chamber.
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said people had the right to know if any other secret deals had been struck.
“It’s impossible to have a proper informed debate on issues that haven’t been fully disclosed - we must know, we must get all the information, we must achieve honesty, openness and transparency around all these issues, starting with rejecting any possibility of secret deals going forward,” he said.
He accused the Labour administration and former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain of cynicism.
“The cynicism we were up against was Peter Hain and the British government working with Sinn Fein to demonstrate contempt for our parliamentary democracy and antipathy and disdain for victims.
“The structures of government must be and must feel to be fully accountable to our people - power must fundamentally lie with the people on the street, the citizens. This is far from the place we find ourselves in today. As my colleague Mark Durkan (Foyle MP) said yesterday, we didn’t work so hard to end the dirty war just to end up with a dirty peace.”