Tony Blair has been urged to provide a full account of his government’s decision to send comfort letters to IRA fugitives – after the former Prime Minister finally agreed to be grilled by MPs on the issue.
The former prime minister’s Labour administration sent 200 letters to republicans assuring them they were not wanted, following requests from Sinn Fein.
Yesterday Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United (IVU), a coalition of 21 terror victims group with some 11,000 members, said that they and others had long campaigned for Mr Blair to appear before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which he will now do on Tuesday.
“The onus is on Tony Blair to account to victims and survivors for the decisions that he took whilst prime minister,” he said.
“Victims and survivors find it very difficult to accept that such care and consideration could be taken by the government to develop and then protect a process demanded by a terrorist movement for the purpose of providing a ‘nod and a wink’ to suspects of murders committed.”
Mr Blair’s U-turn over appearing before the committee has been widely welcomed.
Victims’ campaigner Mr Donaldson added: “Tony Blair’s legacy as prime minister will be a greatly debated point in years to come – will he be remembered as the peace-making prime minister or as the prime minister who repeatedly subverted the democratic system to further his own ‘ends justify the means’ philosophy?”
He also called for Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly and other members of his party to appear before the committee to answer questions – something Mr Kelly has declined to do.
Committee member, Labour MP Kate Hoey, told the News Letter: “I am pleased that our committee will have the opportunity to question the former prime minister about his role in the on the runs saga.
“He must be accountable for decisions that have caused such hurt to the many victims of those many atrocities where possibly the perpetrators may have been allowed to go free.”
Mr Blair finally agreed to appear because he would “have looked extremely foolish to be put in the same category as Gerry Kelly in refusing to attend”, said Ms Hoey.
She added: “He must know that if he has nothing to hide, why would he refuse? He would have been in contempt of Parliament if he had refused, although technically that might not mean an awful lot.”
Another committee member, North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley, also welcomed Mr Blair’s decision to appear in person.
“For some time now it appears that Tony Blair has been on the run from this committee,” he said.
“It is vital that we get to the bottom of the grubby deal struck between the previous Labour government and republicans, and the ‘capture’ of Mr Blair by the committee will help in this process.
“It would have been a contempt of Parliament for him not to attend and this demonstrates the power of the committee.”
Upper Bann MP David Simpson said that parliamentary committees “do not take their work lightly and the need to get to the bottom of this scandal is absolutely paramount”.
He added: “It is notable that Tony Blair will now appear before the committee and I would hope that the matter does not rest here but that all avenues are pursued to ensure that all evidence from relevant personnel is heard.”
Mr Blair was a key architect of the Good Friday Agreement, which led to IRA arms decommissioning and the establishment of a devolved power-sharing administration at Stormont.
He has been summoned to be questioned about how his government dealt with paramilitary suspects in crimes committed during Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict from 1969 to 1998, when the Agreement was signed.
His administration began a peace process scheme in 2000 which saw 95 of the so-called letters of comfort issued by the government to suspects linked by intelligence to almost 300 murders.
They told people they were not wanted at that time but did not rule out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.
The scheme was drawn up following pressure from Sinn Fein to allow the fugitives, who had they been in prison before 1998 would have been released under the Good Friday Agreement, to return to Northern Ireland.
The investigation was launched by MPs when the prosecution of a man for murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bomb was halted after he received one of the OTR letters.