Is 'secret immunity' for IRA suspects really to blame for new N. Ireland controversy?

British and unionist Northern Irish officials expressed dismay over the collapse of an IRA bombing trial in London over a letter informing the suspect he was not to be tried.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
A man walks past Irish republican billboards near Lurgan, outside of Belfast, in Northern Ireland on Thursday. The collapse of an Irish Republican Army bombing trial in London has set Northern Irish politics on its ear, as unionist leaders have expressed outrage over what they say is a secret deal between Tony Blair's former Labour government and Irish republican party Sinn Féin.

Testing the assumptions behind the headlines.

Northern Irish politics has again been thrown into turmoil, after the bombing trial of an alleged Irish Republican Army militant collapsed in London when it transpired the suspect had been given official assurances that he would not be tried.

But while both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson have decried the letter – one of many sent by the British government to IRA suspects since the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement – is the existence of these letters really a surprise to Mr. Cameron and Mr. Robinson?

Or rather, is it another instance of contemporary Northern Ireland touching the third rail of its historical politics: the unsolved violent crimes of the "Troubles," and the near impossibility of addressing them to the satisfaction of both republicans and unionists?

The Downey letter

The case against John Downey, a man accused of killing four soldiers in the 1982 IRA bombing of London’s Hyde Park, collapsed Wednesday when it was revealed that he had been supplied with a letter stating that he would not face trial. The letter informed him that “There are no warrants in existence, nor are you wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charging by police. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not aware of any interest in you by any other police force.”

It later came to light that 187 suspected letters had been sent to “on the runs,” IRA suspects who had avoided trial by absconding from British jurisdiction. The letters allowed suspects to return to Northern Ireland, giving them assurances there were no open investigations into their alleged past activities.

Speaking on BBC television, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Teresa Villiers said the letters are not a "get out of jail free" card, but rather indicated a disinclination to pursue historical cases where new evidence was not available. “If new evidence emerges, those letters do not constitute immunity from prosecution,” she said.

Mr. Cameron has been embarrassed by the deal. Speaking alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to Britain, Mr. Cameron said he wanted to “get to the bottom” of the issue.

Thirty-eight letters were sent by Cameron’s Conservative government, the rest under the previous Labour administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Unionist anger

But unionist politicians have responded to the collapsed trial with dismay, arguing the deal was a secret one done by the then British government of Tony Blair and Irish republican party Sinn Féin.

First Minister Robinson, who leads the Democratic Unionist Party, a hardline pro-British group, threatened to resign from his post. Mr. Robinson later rescinded his threat when the British government announced a “judge-led inquiry” into the matter. The inquiry will not be a full-blown judicial inquiry and will not be able to investigate the role of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the deal.

At an emergency sitting today of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the powersharing body set up under the 1998 “Good Friday Accord,” Mr. Robinson restated he had been unaware of the scheme do deal with “on the runs,” describing the deal as an “invisible” one.

But political commentator Mick Fealty says studied ignorance may be at work in the kerfuffle: “There are things that political parties didn’t want to know. Robinson didn’t want to know anything about this. It’s all routed through the [British government’s] Northern Ireland Office.” 

Time to close the door on the past?

The past may be a foreign country, but in Northern Ireland it remains a hostile one. Northern Ireland’s attorney general came under fire in November 2013 when he suggested there should be an end to prosecutions for killings that occurred during the 30-year conflict, arguing that the evidence trail was too cold to endure safe convictions. 

The proposal was roundly rejected, but may take on new life in light of recent events. “I think that’s where we’re headed. I don’t think it means an amnesty, though. These are not letters of immunity, they’re letters of comfort. It’s a confidence-building exercise,” says Mr. Fealty.

But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and any attempt to cease prosecutions of IRA members would also mean an end to prosecutions of pro-British loyalist terrorists and British army soldiers. 

“Sinn Féin has effectively argued that bringing septuagenarians to trial is not the way forward. What this may mean is that victims of loyalist groups and British government actions will not get what they’re looking for [either]. [Sinn Féin leader] Gerry Adams is saying ‘You don’t want to prosecute old [IRA] soldiers,’ and that means these things should not be pursued,” Fealty says.

Since the Downey trial collapsed, others have called for an end to prosecutions. Billy McQuiston, a senior member in the loyalist terrorist group the Ulster Defence Association, today said the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) should be shut down. Loyalist perception that the HET was focused almost exclusively on the actions of loyalists fueled rioting on the streets of Belfast in recent years.

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