UUP: ‘Have we not learned side-deal lesson from comfort letters?’

Doug Beattie MC MLA pictured at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye
Doug Beattie MC MLA pictured at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye

The Ulster Unionist Party has asked whether any other “side deals” were agreed by Sinn Féin and the UK Government during the recent talks process.

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly, in a BBC television programme on Thursday night, claimed to have proof that his party had reached agreement with the government on funding for legacy cases as part of the mooted ‘draft deal’ to restore devolution.

He said the agreement had been reached during separate negotiations between his party and the government.

While a UK government spokesperson said yesterday there was “no side deal”, the Ulster Unionist Party chairman Lord Empey said their “credibility is at a low ebb”.

Both he and his party’s justice spokesperson Doug Beattie have warned of the dangers of any “seedy back door self-interest deals”.

The pair pointed to the furore over what came to be known as ‘on-the-run letters’ .

The on-the-run scheme only came to light in 2014 during the trial of a man accused of killing four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing.

It emerged that the prime suspect in the bombing, John Downey, who denied the crime, had been given a so-called ‘comfort letter’ by the government, which gave an assurance he was not being sought by police.

It later emerged that many such letters had been given to republicans, and the PSNI told the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee that 95 of those given letters could be linked to nearly 300 murders.

Doug Beattie MLA said yesterday: “It is clear no lessons been learned from previous talks processes and the malign influence of side deals and the seedy back door self-interest deals we in the Ulster Unionist Party warned about.

“The devastating impact of the awarding of 200 ‘on the run’ letters should have served as a stark warning as to what can happen when side deals are entertained, particularly between British Governments and Sinn Fein.”

He continued: “This is very basic stuff and drives a stake through the integrity, transparency and openness of the two political parties that want to run this part of the United Kingdom.”

Mr Beattie added: The problem is that even if a deal is agreed, then we don’t know what other side deals may also have been agreed, but which are not disclosed to the public.”

His party’s chairman and former leader, Lord Empey, said: “Historically their (UK Government) credibility is at a low-ebb because of the fact that there’s been royal pardons given. We don’t know how many – they said they’ve lost them.

“And there’s the on-the-run letters which they concealed from us and it was only because of a court case that that emerged.”

Lord Empey added: “We know that they (side-deals) are very destructive because of the on-the-runs.”