It is a remarkable irony that in the very week that Gerry Kelly decides to sue the Chief Constable after his unscheduled and unorthodox ride on a police Land Rover that we discover that his former comrade in the IRA John Downey is not to be charged in relation to the Hyde Park bombing.
For many of us the Downey affair seriously undermines our faith in both the criminal justice system and the Westminster government’s role in the peace process.
Downey is accused of planting the Hyde Park bomb in July 1982, which exploded as unarmed soldiers from the Blues and Royals were riding on their daily route from their barracks to Buckingham Palace.
Lieutenant Dennis Daly, 23, Trooper Simon Tipper, 19, and Lance-Corporal Geoffrey Young, 19, died instantly; Corporal-Major Roy Bright, 36, died of his injuries three days later.
The bomb, made from several pounds of gelignite and packed with 6in and 4in nails, had been left in the boot of a blue Austin car parked on a driveway in the park. Seven horses were also slaughtered in the blast.
Downey’s trial started last month and reporting restrictions were imposed by the judge Mr Justice Sweeney whilst lawyers argued about whether the case should go ahead
It transpired that Downey was one of 187 republican on the runs who received letters of assurance stating that they were not wanted in connection with IRA offences. This was apparently part of a secret deal between Gerry Adams and Tony Blair connected to the IRA’s decommissioning of weapons: the trial was duly halted.
The British government had attempted to legislate over the issue when it put forward the Northern Ireland Offences Bill which would also have extended to former soldiers and police but this collapsed in 2006, hence the secret pact. All Northern Ireland parties initially objected to it, except Sinn Fein, but when it withdrew support because the measures would have been extended to members of the security forces, the Bill collapsed.
At the time the then Secretary of State Peter Hain said: “To exclude from provisions of the Bill any members of the security forces who might have been involved in such offences would have been not only illogical but indefensible, and we would not do it. Closure on the past cannot be one‐sided. That was, and is, non negotiable.”
However the British government went down a different route, hence the letters, as Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell explained: “The intention behind the British government giving written assurances to individual OTRs was to try to resolve the issue given the failure to find a workable general approach and to provide individual letters that Sinn Fein could use to reassure the individuals concerned that they could return to the UK without fear of arrest.”
Until this week it would appear that nobody outside the British government and Sinn Fein were aware of the deal.
This is all the more extraordinary when you consider that so much time and effort was put into the Haass talks last year. A senior American diplomat was invited to Northern Ireland to help resolve outstanding issues between the parties. One of them, which was exhaustively debated, was how to deal with the past. There was ultimately no agreement although the final draft contains proposals around “limited immunity” which would apply in cases where individuals volunteered information about their past as part of the Haass process.
But the Haass document also states: “In any society, holding people accountable for breaking the law is a fundamental responsibility of government. Doing so consistently and even-handedly reinforces belief in the integrity of government and reassures citizens that their society is safe, fair, and just.’’
And: “There are also likely to be some who carried out violent acts who would, under certain circumstances, be willing to provide information about actions they took during the conflict. We emphasise that these circumstances must not include an amnesty. Where sufficient evidence exists, the Public Prosecution Service cannot forfeit its right to choose to prosecute crimes.”
We do not know the extent to which all the parties signed up to this. But we can be sure of the following: Sinn Fein who were in the talks and the British government who were watching closely from the sidelines were very well aware that they had already entered into an agreement which went considerably beyond what is in the document.
It’s hard to imagine any of the other parties being happy with that when they discovered the reality this week. Negotiations, especially those around such delicate and sensitive issues, must be carried out in good faith and transparently in order to build trust. I am very much afraid that what was revealed in the Downey case will destroy what small amount of goodwill there was left.
And as citizens I think we should all be very concerned indeed that a government should be prepared to undermine the judicial process in such a secretive way and by doing so, showing contempt for the fine words of Haass, which I will quote again: “In any society, holding people accountable for breaking the law is a fundamental responsibility of government. Doing so consistently and even-handedly reinforces belief in the integrity of government and reassures citizens that their society is safe, fair, and just.”
To many of us, those 187 letters are not showing either consistency or even-handedness and that leads to serious questions about the fairness and justice of society.
Gerry Kelly should also reflect on that before he goes any further with his action against the Chief Constable. His former comrade cannot be put on trial for charges of mass murder. He, however, feels free to sue the PSNI because he was carried for a few yards on the front of a vehicle.