We’ve been in crisis before, but this is just about as bad as it gets. So before anything really bad happens let’s pause for a moment and consider who is really to blame for the current loss of trust in the peace process.
On all the evidence to date the answer seems clear enough: responsibility lies with former Prime Minister and peace prize winner Tony Blair. And there are further serious questions that the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers must answer for as well.
Let’s start with a few principles about conflict resolution.
Peaceful resolution of conflict comes about when parties to that conflict establish trust, act with integrity with and towards each other, and show transparency. Those brokering peace cannot say one thing to one side, something completely different to another and then hope that peace and tranquillity can be built on a foundation of deceit.
Sadly that appears to have been what has happened. And as the deceit goes back so far and makes a mockery of much recent discussions about the past and specifically victims, it’s hard to see how we progress from here.
Going back to the roots of the problem we need to remember that the conflict was not a conventional “war.” It was a dirty, savage business. Paramilitaries of all types used torture, intimidation, kidnapping and executions. They bombed towns and cities, killing and maiming civilians. State forces too broke conventional rules of combat and there was collusion, cover up, mass internment, civilian deaths and shoot to kill. We’re a million miles away from the Geneva Convention.
During the conflict the IRA carried out bombings and shootings, the Army and police pursued the IRA, loyalist paramilitaries attacked republicans. There were many victims, some were directly involved in the conflict, most were just going about their daily business when they were killed or maimed.
It ended in stalemate and key elements in any talks both before and after IRA ceasefire and subsequent decommissioning would have inevitably centred around what the British government would do for IRA members in return for the ending of “armed struggle”. Some of those terms would have been political, others would have been about future treatment of IRA members. In these discussions the status of victims would not have been discussed at all.
Once conventional politicians were involved in talks we progressed to the Good Friday Agreement with its clauses around early release of paramilitaries which left the status of “on the runs” as unfinished business.
Those of us who were not members of paramilitary groupings were disturbed by early releases but were encouraged to consider this as a price we had to pay for peace: and the Good Friday Agreement was passed by referendum.
Meanwhile Sinn Fein continued to press over the status of “on the runs” In their view, with the “war” over, the slate should be wiped clean for IRA members who should be allowed to return home without fear of prosecution. We all know that this issue was raised – it was on the public record at the time and there are many references to it online, in books about the peace process and in the press.
However within Northern Ireland every political party save for Sinn Fein opposed any kind of amnesty for on the runs and was firm in opposition to the Northern Ireland Offences Bill when it was put forward by Blair’s government in 2006. The Bill was subsequently dropped because Sinn Fein in turn would not agree to the amnesty being extended to members of the security forces.
I am grateful to Ed Moloney who found a piece written in 2007 by former Belfast Telegraph journalist Chris Thornton which is here: http://thebrokenelbow.com/2014/02/26/on-the-runs-trickery-by-blair-shows-how-the-future-is-trapped-by-the-past/
It is quite clear from any reading of this article that the DUP had been told by Blair that there was no deal over the OTRs. Thornton quotes DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson as follows: “The Prime Minister has made it clear that there is going to be no amnesty for IRA terrorists on the run.
“Neither will it be done by reintroducing the deeply offensive legislation or by some kind of back door deal.”
Remarkably by this time many of the “comfort letters” to republicans had already gone out, the back door deal had been activitated!
There is obviously much, much more to come out on the matter but on the evidence of this piece, back in 2007 people knew that files of OTR cases were being considered and that many had returned home and that others, including Crumlin Road jail escapers had received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.
Of course Blair and his apologists will argue that that means all parties knew of the arrangements. But it is a very big leap from knowing that on the run cases were being reviewed to being aware and being supportive of OTRs getting comfort letters, initially from 10 Downing Street no less and that these letters would have sufficient force to subsequently halt a trial of a man accused of the Hyde Park bombing. Granted there is specific reference to letters in Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell’s book published in 2008. But do we really have to go to Waterstones and plough through self-serving memoirs in order to uncover what has gone on here?
It would appear that the deal was done, it was dressed up as a mere administrative process and nobody from the other parties twigged what was really happening. The most you could accuse them of in these circumstances is not digging hard enough
Perfidious Albion indeed
Which brings us to Theresa Villiers. Ms Villiers was very supportive of the Haass talks but has consistently maintained that issues of dealing with the past were matters for the parties here rather than her. Strange then that she chose not even to mention in passing that whilst saying this, her own office was sanctioning letters to former IRA activists that had a direct bearing on the very matters they were discussing.
And when talking about the past everyone agrees that victims’ interests should be put first. Well, here’s the problem, they weren’t. And guess what? They probably never will be now because you cannot have one rule for the IRA and another for everyone else. We’ve reached amnesty by default whether we like it or not. The legitimate interests of victims from all communities were sacrificed in the interests of ending conflict. That may have been a price many were prepared to pay. But until it is properly addressed and resolved the injustice it involved will fester away like an open wound.
And sadly, after this week’s revelations, the mutual trust required to resolve it is just not there.