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What was needed to deliver the historic peace settlement in Northern Ireland
The bitterness of families and friends of the four soldiers killed in the 1982 Hyde Park terrorist atrocity over the John Downey debacle is understandable. After being officially cleared as a suspect, he was prosecuted in circumstances I still find astonishing, then yesterday that prosecution was aborted. No wonder there is anger on all sides.
But before politicians and pundits rush to vent their spleen with loose talk of “deceitful deals” by Tony Blair’s government as part of the peace process, let’s just keep one fundamental truth to the fore. Northern Ireland today is light years from where it was. Almost universal peace and stability has replaced the hideous horror of the past.
And that did not just happen. It is the product of 10 years of determined leadership by Blair and his ministers, together with Northern Ireland leaders willing to show courage and also lead from the front instead of, as they had mostly tended to do, from behind.
But the “end game” to bitter conflict is always incredibly difficult.
As the wind howled off the North Down coast on Remembrance Day 2005, notes of The Last Post echoing hauntingly, I was left in no doubt as to just how difficult.
Speaking to widows at the annual prison officers memorial service, only a few months after the IRA had declared an historic end to its war – which meant no more victims like them in the future – this was of scant consolation. For those decent and dignified people, the endgame meant only “betrayal”. They didn’t and still don’t accept the abnormal measures that were necessary to normalise Northern Ireland, just as bringing closure to other bitter conflicts around the world has required governments to do controversial and difficult things.
They were in uproar when, following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, over 400 loyalist and republican paramilitary prisoners, many convicted of appalling terrorist crimes, were released on licence. But it was the right thing to do to seal the agreement and lock in the peace.
Although nobody should presume to ask victims to draw a line under the past, there are times when the government must take a view on the best way for society as a whole to move on, to get closure on the past, difficult as that is.
Yet the 1998 prisoner releases left an anomaly of more than 200 Northern Ireland terrorist suspects “on the run”, completely outside the reach of our justice system, concerning terrorist offences before 10 April 1998, who could face jail yet who, had they been in prison at the material time, would have been part of that early release scheme.
This was important to Sinn Féin because they needed to bring all active republicans along with them behind the peace process. With some freed after Good Friday, but others potentially facing arrest and prosecution, the whole process could have been badly disrupted.
I therefore introduced legislation in the House of Commons to establish a process to address the matter. I did so knowing full well how very hard it was and still is for those, like the prison officer widows, who had lost so much.
But having asked for and approved this legislation, Sinn Féin was then pressured by the Social Democratic and Labour party to switch because the process applied to British soldiers and not just terrorist suspects. It always had to be even-handed.
There is rewriting of history now – including opportunistically by some Conservative politicians – but everyone knew that the “on-the-runs” anomaly remained to be addressed, as Tony Blair and my predecessor had agreed it would be at the Weston Park talks in 2001.
So a process was put in place. It was not something casual. Names submitted were painstakingly assessed according to robust procedures approved by government law officers. The cases often involved crimes committed many decades before. A unit of Police Service for Northern Ireland officers carefully examined each one. If there was insufficient evidence to enable a prosecution, the people involved received an official letter from a Northern Ireland official: 187 of them did so, Downey included.
But there was no “amnesty” or “immunity” granted to these on-the-runs: an amnesty would have meant the suspects being pardoned, which was never contemplated. Indeed without it there would have been a de facto amnesty because the IRA suspects would have all remained beyond the reach of the law.
Despite being attacked and criticised for this process, it was necessary. Just as it was necessary to do “side deals” with Ian Paisley’s DUP, which I also did. Without all these, old and bitter enemies would not have been governing Northern Ireland together as they have now for seven years. Notwithstanding some rigor mortis from the past, we have achieved closure on the horror and violence. I make no apology for that.