MPs to quiz Blair and Hain over deal

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair

Tony Blair and Peter Hain could be summoned to appear before a second inquiry into how ‘letters of comfort’ were issued to IRA fugitives, a former Labour minister said last night.

On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron set up an inquiry to be overseen by a judge and clarified that the letters should not be relied upon by their recipients, something which persuaded Peter Robinson to withdraw his threat to resign as First Minister.

But that inquiry will lack the ability to compel unwilling witnesses and will not hold public hearings.

However, on Friday night veteran Labour MP Kate Hoey told the News Letter that she believed a separate probe — a Parliamentary inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee — would next week be established.

Ms Hoey said the first person the committee was likely to want to question will be former Secretary of State Peter Hain, who approved the scheme, and added: “I’d like to have Jonathan Powell; we might even have to ask the former Prime Minister [Tony Blair].”

Writing in Saturday’s News Letter, the First Minister makes clear that he would support a decision by the committee to set up an inquiry into the crisis.

The committee, whose members include Ian Paisley Jr and Naomi Long, is due to meet formally on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the committee’s Tory chairman, Laurence Robertson, said that the judge-led inquiry set up by Mr Cameron was “too narrow” and suggested that it may begin its own investigation.

If it does that, the committee investigation would have sweeping powers to compel any witness, require them to give testimony under oath and to demand private papers — even those held by a solicitor relating to a client.

Senior committee member Kate Hoey said: “I am pretty confident that we will have an inquiry.

“I know that the chairman, Laurence Robertson, is keen and it really is just a question of working out how our inquiry can help to add to the judicial inquiry.

“But I think that the benefit of a select committee is that we can make a lot of things more public more quickly.”

Asked how quickly the inquiry could get under way if it is agreed on Wednesday, Ms Hoey said: “We can actually start having meetings right away.

“I imagine the first person we would want to call would be Peter Hain.”

She added: “I think what people really want to know, and what we’re really interested in is: who actually wrote these letters, who they’ve gone to, who agreed for the poor police officer [who wrote the letters].”

Ms Hoey said that she did not believe that any member of the committee - which includes DUP, SDLP and Alliance MPs - would object to holding an inquiry.

Meanwhile, extraordinary evidence from a retired senior PSNI officer involved in the police operation to write ‘letters of comfort’ to IRA fugitives has emerged.

Yesterday in the Assembly’s emergency debate about the crisis, TUV leader Jim Allister drew attention to the minutes of a past hearing by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee at which retired RUC and PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter was a witness.

Mr Baxter, who led the police inquiry into the Omagh bombing, said at the 2009 hearing: “You would have to be so naive to think that the Secretary of State, and his predecessors, sits in Stormont Castle and does not tamper with policing.”

When Lady Hermon said with alarm “Tamper with policing?”, Mr Baxter replied: “Yes, I would use the word ‘tamper’.

“One of my responsibilities before I retired was to conduct a review of on-the-runs, that is persons who are outside the jurisdiction. I can assure the committee that there was an extremely unhealthy interest by officials in the Northern Ireland Office about prioritising individuals who were on the run and about ensuring that they were cleared to return to the North.”

As Mr Baxter went on to say “That was done through...”, Lady Hermon cut across him to say: “Yes, but with the greatest respect, Mr Baxter, those were on-the-runs. We are talking here about...[the Omagh bomb]”.

Mr Baxter told the committee that “you would have to be naive to believe that the Secretary of State and his officials, or her officials in the past, did not directly intervene in policing.”

He gave an example of where former Secretary of State Mo Mowlam rang a duty inspector, when Mr Baxter said he was on duty, after Martin McGuinness had been stopped by police and told police to release him.