To understand this week’s controversy over on-the-run IRA suspects we need to look back to the lead-up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the deal which paved the way to today’s more peaceful Northern Ireland.
The accord was hammered out in negotiating sessions in Belfast involving not only political parties and Sinn Fein but also the leadership of the IRA. The late Mo Mowlam, then Northern Ireland Secretary, remembered the republican delegation: “They brought in some people who were obviously members of the IRA Army Council. You don’t ask names – you just say hello and you get on with it,” she said.
Of the many sensitive issues argued through the night, one of the most challenging was the question of hundreds of paramilitary prisoners, both republican and loyalist, held then in the Maze prison.
Tony Blair, who headed the negotiations, recalled forcefully telling the republicans: “Look, to release people who have done terrible things, who have murdered policemen, who have killed innocent people, is a difficult political thing, and there will be a lot of people who will be shocked by that.
“Anyone feels a natural repugnance at the idea of allowing out early people who have taken the lives of others and committed really hideous acts of terrorism against totally innocent people.”
But the republicans resisted Blair’s idea that prisoners would be released over a three-year period. Gerry Kelly, a one-time IRA leader now senior in Sinn Fein, said insistently: “What I want to know is: when is the first prisoner getting out and when is the last prisoner getting out?”
After a period of deadlock Blair placed an early-morning transatlantic call to President Bill Clinton, asking him to apply pressure to the republicans. In a later interview Clinton recalled telling the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams: “Gerry, you gotta understand this is a nightmare for Blair, because if there’s any act of violence after any of these guys get out, he’ll be accused of being made a dupe for murderers. So it’s hard for him.”
The two sides eventually compromised on releases over two years, Blair declaring: “The one major issue on which I’m vulnerable in terms of comment on my side of the water is the prisoners issue.”
One of his aides explained: “It looked like softness, it looked like a concession to terrorism – we were going to have great difficulties in selling it. But we also knew that, if there was not this element, the Agreement was probably not going to succeed.”
The two-year period was a bitter pill for many relatives of victims to swallow. Many had sat in court watching as republicans and loyalists were handed life sentences for the murder of their relatives. The thought that the killers would remain behind bars for decades offered some consolation to the bereaved.
But they were then urged, in a referendum on the Good Friday pact, to approve both a radical new arrangement which would put republican politicians in government and let republican prisoners out of jail. It was the hardest of hard sells, and while most nationalists voted in favour around half of Unionists voted against.
In the years that followed, the focus of the peace process was on efforts to set up the present power-sharing government and on keynote issues such as the decommissioning of IRA weaponry.
Both of these eventually came about, but the issue of republican “on-the-runs” remained a key item of unfinished business.
The Blair government accepted the Sinn Fein argument that scores of republicans were effectively in limbo and that, since the IRA’s war was over, they should be free to return to Northern Ireland or travel to Britain.
A number of efforts to resolve these cases foundered on opposition from Unionist politicians and from Westminster opinion. The decisive rejection by the Commons of an attempt at legislation led many to assume the issue was off the agenda.
But what quietly evolved was the administrative scheme which, originally a temporary measure, developed over the years into the issuing of around 200 letters of assurance to republican fugitives. There was input from law officers and police but no parliamentary scrutiny.
Most of the letters were sent out under the Labour government, though the practice continued under the present coalition, which has despatched around three dozen of them. The scheme was not highlighted either by the authorities or Sinn Fein; nor was it a closely guarded secret. The memoirs of Blair’s aide Jonathan Powell mention it, as does a 2009 report on victim issues.
In addition, the publicly available minutes of the Northern Ireland Policing Board include a transcript of a senior police officer describing the scheme. The Board includes three members of Peter Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party.
But although the outlines of the scheme were there in the public domain, there is no known documentation explicitly setting out that the authorities were writing letters to “on-the-runs”. Unionists hotly contest the Sinn Fein allegation that they knew a scheme was in operation.
Its existence will be subjected to intense scrutiny in the wake of David Cameron’s announcement that a judge will file a report on the affair. It is not yet clear whether it might be changed in any important respect.
The affair has done damage. Many people have been absolutely affronted to learn of the letters, many victims experiencing new distress.
Much anger and indeed venom has been generated by an episode which has intensified the often-voiced Protestant view that Sinn Fein extracts maximum advantage from the peace process.
Community relations can hardly be expected to improve after such a fraught week, especially since election campaigns are looming. Much in Belfast has improved since the Good Friday Agreement, but the city has just received an unwelcome new reason to feel mistrust.