Understanding the on the runs debate

Progress

Tony Blair was masterful giving evidence before the Northern Ireland select committee today, confirming that the so-called ‘on the runs’ scheme was indispensable to the historic peace settlement we achieved in 2007.

Yet he and ministers like me have been accused of doing a ‘shabby’, ‘one-sided’ side deal with Sinn Fein behind the backs of parliament, the Northern Ireland political parties, victims and the public at large.

It is argued that as a result at least one alleged ‘terrorist’, John Downey, has evaded justice and that therefore many more will have also have done so. It is further alleged that, by involving the police in this process the government ‘politicised’ them, as well as the law officers and civil servants who were involved in the administration of the scheme.

I utterly reject these accusations, and believe that they spring from a fundamental misunderstanding about the core issue.

In the controversy which has understandably raged since the John Downey prosecution fiasco in 2013 over the Hyde Park bombing, there has been a complete failure to distinguish between, first, those who were genuinely ‘on the run’ (that is, who the police were pursuing on the basis of evidence against them), and, second, those who may or may not have committed pre-Good Friday Agreement Troubles-related crimes but against whom there was either no evidence, or insufficient evidence to detain, let alone prosecute, if they came back into United Kingdom jurisdiction.

For some the difference between these two categories is immaterial. But it is actually fundamental.

The Northern Ireland offences bill, which I introduced to the House of Commons on 9 November 2005, was designed to honour commitments our Labour government made at Hillsborough in 2001, and published in detail after the Weston Park talks in April 2003.

Had I not withdrawn that bill on 11 January 2006, it would have dealt with the first category of cases, namely, those who had committed crimes or were wanted by the police.

That key ‘on the runs’ issue Sinn Fein wanted dealt with is still outstanding and has still not been resolved.

The second category came under the Administrative Scheme – which, as the Tory attorney general, Dominic Grieve, confirmed to the House on 26 February 2014, was entirely lawful. It was essentially a screening exercise that in the Downey case obviously went wrong. As I understand it, this Administrative Scheme began some five years before I became secretary of state for Northern Ireland on 6 May 2005 and continued after I left on 27 June 2007, including under the current government.

Far from being ‘invisible’ the existence of the Administrative Scheme was mentioned to the House both by one of my predecessors John Reid on 1 July 2002 and by me on 7 February 2007. It was again publicly referred to by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley in their Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, published in January 2009.

The Administrative Scheme processed people on behalf of whom Sinn Fein inquired as to their status: were they wanted or not at the time of asking.

It was no more than that. The function was in the title: ‘Administrative’.

In the case of those not wanted the letters they received contained statements of fact after careful checks by the police, the attorney general’s office and NIO officials, and they were clear that, should further evidence come to light, these letters would no longer be valid.

Consequently they were emphatically not ‘get out of jail free cards’ nor ‘amnesties’ – as indeed has been made clear to NI MPs committee by three chief constables, the attorney general’s office and the DPP for Northern Ireland. And also by Justice Hallett’s 2014 review which also cleared all Labour ministers involved of any wrongdoing.

At no time was I aware of the names of those being processed under the Administrative Scheme, nor the timing involved, nor the nature of the assessments made. Those were matters for the police, the law officers and officials, not for government ministers.

It would have been wholly improper for me to have inquired about or got involved in that process.The Administrative Scheme in whatever iteration over time never was an attempt to resolve the first category issues set out in that bill.

And those issues, I repeat, remain unresolved.

This distinction between the two categories lumped under the generic title of ‘on the runs’ is absolutely central.

I was part of a government in which I am proud to have served as secretary of state for Northern Ireland that had the lead responsibility along with colleagues in the Irish government to negotiate and deliver a political settlement following, not decades but centuries, of division and, at times deadly, conflict.

It often involved taking difficult decisions in real time, but what I am absolutely certain of is that at all times those were decisions taken honourably and within the law. And we can unpick and pick at aspects of that process as much as we like. But if we analyse them in isolation as if the world is other than it was then, I am not sure where that will take us.

Having appointed the interim victims commissioner in 2005 and commissioned the comprehensive Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past which reported in 2009, I am very conscious of the harrowing legacy of horror and evil that victims and survivors continue to bear. I utterly reject any suggestion that I, or anyone with whom I served in government, was indifferent to their suffering. It was precisely to ensure that there never again would be victims in the future that I am proud of everything I did to achieve what most people thought impossible: the 2007 settlement which has now produced over seven years of relative peace and stability.