The row over the so called ‘Letters of Comfort’ secretly sent to IRA suspects by the British government over ten years ago shows just how much trust and understanding has been eroded from the Northern Ireland peace process.
It also shows that the current Conservative party British Government has nothing like the same commitment to the historic Northern Ireland settlement as the previous Labour one – especially in the run-in to a UK general election – and it shows an Irish Government that is, at best, complacent and lackadaisical in its engagement with the North or with countering the cold, ‘security-first’ policy of the current British Government. All of this is a depressing deterioration from where things were just a few years ago.
The letters of comfort were given to former IRA members by previous British Governments as a guarantee that they would not be prosecuted for previous crimes, and that they would benefit from more or less the same approach as convicted IRA members, and the prisoners (including Loyalists), who were released en masse after the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998.
Fifteen years ago, as part of the final negotiations to the GFA, then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams reached agreement on an effective amnesty for up to 200 IRA members active during The Troubles.
Blair is rightly adamant that without the letters of comfort the IRA ceasefire would never have endured. "The issue of OTRs ( On the Runs) was absolutely critical to the peace process and at certain points became fundamental to it…,” Blair told the MPs who have been investigating the scheme. “And I think it is likely that the process would have collapsed."
Now, however, the UK police no longer believe the Blair letters afford these suspects any protection and are apparently keen to seek prosecutions, most especially for high-profile IRA actions in London in the 1980s. However, if such suspects were arrested and tried it would quite likely cause a major crisis in the peace process as the letters from Blair were clearly and understandably taken as immunity documents by wanted IRA members known as the OTR’s, or 'On the Runs.’ This is what they would have expected as part of signing up for a lasting settlement.
The move is particularly ironic given that this week we have also seen some devastating revelations about collusion during the height of the Troubles between Loyalist killers and the British security forces. According to Leslie Thomas QC, a lawyer presiding at a double inquest in Belfast, loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for up to 80 deaths between July 1972 and June 1978 in Northern Ireland's ‘murder triangle’ in counties Armagh and Tyrone, and the UK security forces may have colluded in many of those murders.
Most of the atrocities were carried out by the so called ‘Glenanne Gang’ of UVF gunmen with the alleged active involvement of soldiers and police officers. The gang operated out of farms in Armagh and Tyrone in the mid-1970s when the Troubles were at their worst. Now the families of the victims, supported by Leslie Thomas QC, are calling for a full inquest.
These allegations, although sensational, only confirm the now widespread belief that there was often extensive collusion between loyalist gangs and the British security forces during the conflict. Only this week, Anne Cadwallader, the author of "Lethal Allies," a devastating 2013 book about the subject, testified in front of a Congressional Committee in Washington about the deep extent of this British collusion.
"If what we say is right, this is the biggest involvement of state agents in mass murder on what is technically British soil," said Leslie Thomas in Belfast about the latest allegations. “Then we say that what the families of the bereaved want, quite simply is the truth to come out: they want justice."
However, the British media and establishment has virtually ignored these allegations, and focused predictably on the On the Runs, especially since the Blair government’s Letters of Comfort involved an undoubted deal of official secrecy and subterfuge. There is also the fact that the ‘guarantees’ were issued by a Labour Government and not a Conservative one. In UK politics, especially at the moment, party partisanship can often come before what’s actually good for Northern Ireland, or even the UK.
However, the broader picture here is a selectivity of outrage and seeking of justice about certain parts of the Northern Ireland conflict, but also the dilemma of how much of the past should be left in the past, including the non-pursuit of suspects for past crimes. This is especially the case in the Irish Republic, where specific, often long past, cases have recently been re-introduced into the public discourse as needing investigation and ‘justice.’
The question is whether one accepts that a line should be drawn under the Troubles as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the entire peace process, and that Northern Ireland should be allowed to move on.
In a weekend editorial, the Daily Telegraph, which reflects British military and Tory party thinking, called for a reopening of criminal investigations into the OTR cases, and a pursuit of prosecutions for IRA shootings and bombings in the 1980s in London. But would the newspaper also wish to see prosecutions for the Bloody Sunday shootings of 1972 and other events and actions by soldiers, like the Ballymurphy killings in 1971?
Is the solution to let sleeping dogs lie? Of course, relatives should be able to find out how their loved ones died, and the ongoing Historical Enquiries team has been doing just that, unearthing often extraordinary details. Looking for prosecutions on these events, however, now seems counter-productive and dangerously so, and against the spirit of the peace process which, although many of us may dislike its amnesty, was about moving on and accepting that all these things were a consequence of a political conflict. Unpicking that understanding now could unravel the whole settlement. And arresting and charging the OTRs at this stage would certainly add to that.
Laurence Robertson, the Tory MP who chaired the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, was asked why he didn't consult with Sinn Fein MPs on the OTR issue, and said that because those MPs don’t take their seats in Westminster (as part of Sinn Fein’s long standing policy of abstention) that they had forfeited this right, or facility.
But this is a ridiculous answer and shows just how some MPs either don't actually understand the Northern Ireland peace process or simply don't want to support its spirit and understanding. In the absence of Sinn Fein the committee is overwhelmingly Unionist and anti-Republican, and so its harsh findings against the OTR policy are not surprising. Nor is Laurence Robertson's response: he is opposed to the Good Friday Agreement!
As for the Irish Government, there has been a relative silence in terms of reaction, but one assumes that it is busy behind the scenes. One hopes so, for of late there has been a tendency of drift and disengagement on Northern Ireland by an Irish Government preoccupied by economic issues. Granted, Dublin comes on to the scene when the process looks like breaking down, but on the week to week issues, there appears to be little active interest or passion.
Many in the Irish Government see the Dublin role as one of being an ‘honest broker,’ and not as part of the wider Irish dimension and even (low key) nationalist dynamic. There is now also the added complicating factor that Sinn Fein is such an electoral threat in the South that certain Irish Government elements are disinclined to do anything to help Sinn Fein: they are unable to distinguish between SF as the main partner of Government in a fragile Northern Irish settlement and SF as a political rival in the South.
This is a big mistake for, by not remaining utterly vigilant and where necessary forceful on the North, the Irish Government risks drift and alienation, and the triumph of British stubbornness. And eventually: crisis. And that’s the last thing the South, or North needs.
Unfortunately, the selective and even vindictive approach of the British authorities to the On the Run suspects, so against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, could be a major contributor to the crisis.