Analysis: Peter Robinson gets some, but not all, of his demands

First Minister Peter Robinson pictured during a phonecall to Prime Minister David Cameron.
First Minister Peter Robinson pictured during a phonecall to Prime Minister David Cameron.

As quickly as the storm over IRA fugitives’ apparent amnesties emerged over the horizon, it yesterday blew over.

Having built the crisis to a point where it appeared increasingly likely that Peter Robinson was going to have to resign, the First Minister yesterday pronounced himself satisfied with two concessions from Downing Street.

Without doubt, his risky threat to quit caused the slow wheels of officialdom to whir, rapidly producing an inquiry chaired by a judge and a public statement that the ‘comfort letters’ could not be relied upon by their owners.

It is not everything he asked for – the inquiry will be in private (albeit its report will be published), not the “full public inquiry” demanded and it cannot compel witnesses, meaning that Tony Blair – if unwilling – cannot be forced to cooperate.

And the First Minister’s demand that the letters be “rescinded” had only been answered by the Government stating what it had already stated – that in its view the letters could never be relied upon to prevent prosecutions.

Significantly, as Mr Robinson raised the issue of Royal pardons, there was no mention yesterday of those secret assurances.

But Mr Robinson has clearly calculated that he has secured the maximum concessions from Government without the ultimate risk of resigning his post with no guarantee that he would secure any further concessions.

Today’s Assembly debate will likely focus on what exactly has been agreed by the Government, something around which there was last night considerable uncertainty.

The fact that the Old Bailey this week found that the letters – albeit in a case where a police error meant that its information was not entirely accurate – can be used to halt prosecutions means that any future judicial testing of yesterday’s Government statement will have major implications.

Mr Cameron’s announcement was immediately welcomed by Labour, the party which under Tony Blair set up the scheme and arguably has the most to fear from rigorous scrutiny, something which will do little to reassure sceptics that this inquiry will turn over the stones under which destabilising secrets lie.

And the reaction of some backbench Tories, such as Laurence Robertson, a veteran Conservative MP who is close to the DUP, that the inquiry set up by their leader – due to report just after May’s election – is “too narrow” is clearly at odds with Mr Robinson’s analysis.

Having further shaken public confidence in the peace process, this storm has passed over, but it has not passed for good.