‘Disrespectful’ Blair summoned by MPs over OTR letters

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair
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A powerful Westminster committee has publicly rebuked Tony Blair for his refusal to cooperate with an inquiry into letters his government sent to on the run IRA suspects.

Last month, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee complained that the former prime minister had “refused” to appear before the inquiry in person to answer questions about some 200 letters given to suspected paramilitaries.

Yesterday the committee chairman Laurence Robertson sent Mr Blair an open latter, telling him MPs on the committee were “particularly disappointed at a lack of response since its members have noted that you have been in the UK regularly over the past few weeks, but you have not been able to find and hour or so to meet us”.

“The committee felt that this was extremely disrespectful to the House,” the chair added. “Accordingly, following the unanimous decision of the committee, I summon you to appear before it at 2.30pm on Wednesday 14 January 2015.

“You will wish to note that it was agreed that I should release this letter to the media.”

A spokeswoman for Mr Blair said: “We have been carefully considering all the options previously proposed by the committee, given they refused to accept written evidence along with the assurance that any subsequent questions would be answered.

“This process has been difficult but no disrespect was intended, neither to the House nor to the people of Northern Ireland.”

It is understood Mr Blair is not currently in the UK.

Kate Hoey, Northern Ireland-born Labour MP for Vauxhall (who also sits on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee), said: “The committee are very determined that the people of Northern Ireland have the right to hear from the previous Prime Minister who was absolutely central to the on the runs issue.

“This step taken by the committee today shows that we did feel strongly that the ex-Prime Minister had tried to avoid coming in front of us.”

The committee contains mainly Conservative and Labour MPs, but also Ian Paisley and David Simpson (both DUP), Naomi Long (Alliance), Alasdair McDonnell (SDLP) and Lady Hermon (Independent).

It has also summoned two senior Government officials to appear, claiming that steps had been taken by Government to block their attendance.

Members are seeking to take public evidence from Cabinet Office, and former Northern Ireland Office, officials Mark Sweeney and Simon Case.

Mr Robertson said Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers had previously blocked their attendance. The officials have been summoned to appear on January 7.

The committee is examining a scheme formulated by the last Labour government at the request of Sinn Fein that saw about 200 letters sent to so-called on the runs assuring them they were not being actively pursued by the UK authorities.

The probe was triggered by the high-profile case of John Downey, who walked free from the Old Bailey earlier this year when his prosecution for the murders of four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing was halted by a judge when it emerged he had been sent one of the letters in error.

Co Donegal man Downey, 62, who denied involvement in the bombing, was wrongly issued with a letter because Government officials in the Northern Ireland Office were not told by police in Northern Ireland that he was being actively sought by the Met for the Hyde Park outrage.

The Old Bailey judge put a stay on his prosecution as he deemed his arrest at Gatwick Airport in 2013 constituted an abuse of process.