Ian Paisley was the Big Man of Northern Ireland politics. The historic 2007 peace settlement bringing bitter lifetime enemies to govern jointly could never have happened without him. I worked very closely with him and came to like and respect him, his wife Eileen, his MP son Ian and his family wider close-knit family to whom I extend my sympathies.
Controversial letters sent to Irish republicans who were “on the run” were an essential part of the peace process, former Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland Peter Hain has told MPs.
The Neath MP said the scheme – intended to let individuals know whether they were wanted for questioning by the police – helped “drag Northern Ireland away from the horror and the evil and terror of the past”.
Mr Hain cautioned against an outright rescinding of the letters and insisted these were not “get out of jail free cards”.
He said: “I realise this gives deep offence to victims and to my unionist friends but they were essential building blocks to get the peace settlement, to drag Northern Ireland away from the horror and the evil and terror of the past.
“And it would be very, very dangerous and toxic to somehow retrospectively rescind those letters and I know the Secretary of State is not doing that – she is confirming their legal status, or lack of – but I just caution people on that because that was part of getting us from the horror of the past to the peace and stability which we now enjoy.”
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that in a way her statement confirms what was the case all along: that the letters were not get out of jail free cards, but confirmed what the police and law officers assessed at the time, which was that these people were not wanted—wrongly in the case of Downey, and absolutely and rightly an apology is due for that—but that that did not preclude prosecutions in future should evidence come to light? I realise that that gives deep offence to victims and to my Unionist friends, but the letters were essential building blocks to get the peace settlement to drag Northern Ireland away from the horror, evil and terror of the past. It would be very dangerous and toxic somehow retrospectively to rescind those letters. I know the Secretary of State is not doing that; she is simply confirming their legal status, or lack of it, but I caution people because the scheme was part of getting us from the horror of the past to the peace and stability that we now enjoy.
Mrs Villiers: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that my statement is consistent with how the scheme was always intended to operate. It was intended to be a scheme to establish whether an individual was wanted, not to provide an amnesty or assurance to those who were wanted that they were not wanted. It was also clear from the Hallett report that John Downey should never have received a letter. If the scheme had been properly administered, no such letter would have been issued. It was that serious error that led to the result in the Downey case.
On the legal effect of today’s announcement, as I have said, I do not believe that the words “rescind” or “revoke” are appropriate. It is much better to stick to the fact that these letters should no longer be relied on, and owing to the systemic flaws in the scheme, it might well be that further errors were made. Decisions on the prosecution of recipients of letters will be taken in exactly the same way as they are in relation to every other member of the public: if there is evidence or intelligence to justify arrest, that is what will happen.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that this exemplary report demonstrates to the victims who have suffered, and continue to suffer so much, that the scheme was not unlawful, was not an amnesty, and was not a get-out-of-jail-free card, that it did not offer immunity from prosecution, that no Minister involved misled anyone, and that although the scheme was sensitive, it was not secret?
May I put it directly to the Secretary of State that she has a responsibility to take this process forward, to learn from the report, and to bring all the parties together? That cannot be left simply to the Northern Ireland parties. Both the British Government and the Irish Government need to move forward, together with the parties, and address this past which continues to haunt Northern Ireland and all the victims who have suffered.
Mrs Villiers: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s praise for the report. As I have said, I think that there are concerns about the disclosure relating to the scheme; I think that it would have been far better if I, and my predecessors, had been more transparent about the way in which it operated. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is important for us to revive the all-party talks, and for the parties to get round the table again to discuss the crucial issues of flags, parading and the past. We need to learn from the report.
I can, of course, give the right hon. Gentleman a complete assurance that the United Kingdom Government remain committed to doing all that they can to support the Northern Ireland parties in their efforts on these matters, and that we are working closely with our colleagues in Dublin, who share our determination to do everything possible to facilitate and support an agreement on the past.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): There should be no amnesty or “get out of jail free” card for troubles-related crimes, but does the Secretary of State agree that in 90% of cases, according to experts, victims will not get justice by pursuing prosecutions alone, because the evidence is simply not available to bring those cases to trial and get a conclusion?
Mrs Villiers: What came across clearly was that many victims wanted the possibility of justice. I think they would accept that in many cases that is going to be difficult to achieve, but it would be unacceptable to introduce an amnesty and deprive victims of any hope of receiving justice.