We had to end the terror: John Downey’s freedom was part of the difficult deal that achieved peace in Northern Ireland

Guardian

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 on Tuesday that prosecution was aborted. No wonder there is anger on all sides. Northern Ireland’s first minister, Peter Robinson, says he’ll resign unless there is a judicial inquiry – even though there will meanwhile be a police ombudsman inquiry.

But before politicians and pundits rush to vent their spleen with loose talk of “deceitful deals” by Tony Blair’s government, 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 was the product of 10 years of determined leadership by Blair and his ministers, together with Northern Irish leaders willing to show courage and lead from the front.

The “endgame” 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 a 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 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.

Yet the prisoner releases left an anomaly of more than 200 terrorist suspects “on the run”, completely outside the reach of our justice system, who could face jail – yet who, had they been in prison at the time, would have been part of that early-release scheme.

This was important to Sinn Fein because it needed to get all active republicans 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. But having asked for and approved this legislation, Sinn Fein was then pressured by the Social Democratic and Labour party to oppose it 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, but as I expressly told the Commons in January 2006 in withdrawing the legislation, the “on the runs” anomaly remained to be addressed, as Tony Blair had agreed at the Weston Park talks in 2001.

So a process was put in place. Names submitted were painstakingly assessed. Cases often involved crimes committed many decades before. A unit of officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland carefully examined each one. If there was insufficient evidence to enable a prosecution, the people involved received an official letter: 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.

This process was necessary. Just as it was necessary to do “side deals” with Ian Paisley’s DUP. Without all these, old and bitter enemies would not have been governing Northern Ireland together as they have now for seven years. We have achieved closure on the horror and violence. I make no apology for that.