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.

What was needed to deliver the historic peace settlement 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 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.

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John Downey

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has described the process as lawful? Will he confirm that it was overseen by the Law Officers, including the Attorney-General? The fact of the matter is that the process was designed to address 200 or so individuals. The whole situation was an anomaly. To achieve and lock in the peace process following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, 400 prisoners were released, some of whom had committed terrible atrocities. That angered victims at the time, which I understand, but it was an essential part of getting to where we are now. Similarly, addressing the question of the 200—that anomaly—was part of that as well.

As for the idea that this was some secret thing out of the blue, I told the House on 11 January 2006 that, in withdrawing the legislative approach to addressing the anomaly,

“the Government still believe that the anomaly will need to be faced at some stage”—[Official Report, 11 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 288.]

No one should have been surprised that we had to do that. It was necessary to get to a position in which Northern Ireland could escape its hideous past of evil and terrorism and enter into a period of almost universal peace and stability, with old enemies negotiating and governing together. That should be welcomed and our role as a Government in achieving that should be commended, and I hope that the Attorney-General will do so.

The Attorney-General: I am extremely mindful that the right hon. Gentleman and others on both sides of the House worked hard during the peace process. Indeed, they continue to do so, as this process is by no means complete. I am the first to pay tribute to him for the work that he did.

There is an important distinction between releasing prisoners under an exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, as part of a peace settlement, and any suggestion of an amnesty. Those two things are rather different. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there was no such amnesty. Indeed, any suggestion that we might move towards an amnesty was firmly rejected by widespread views expressed in Parliament.

Mr Hain: And by the Government.

The Attorney-General: And the Government accepted that. For those reasons, we have a system. The right hon. Gentleman says that he explained to the House—he certainly did—about looking at other methods. I think that it is best for him to explain what publicity or otherwise that may have attracted. He is quite right that the system of giving an assurance to an individual that they are not wanted because they are indeed not wanted and there is no current basis for wanting them is not an unlawful process in which to engage.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman raised the oversight of the Law Officers. He is quite right that, during this process, the office of the Attorney-General operated as the co-ordinating point, because the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland could not and would not communicate directly with Northern Ireland Office, and therefore collated the information that was supplied. In fairness to my predecessors, it is probably right to say that they would have had no independent means to verify whether or not someone was wanted, and reliance for that was placed on the PSNI and its links with other police forces in the other jurisdictions of this country.

Haass Talks

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): On the past and the Downey case, I agree with the Secretary of State that there was never any question of an amnesty. May I also say that I make no apology for being part of a process that brought Northern Ireland from the hideous horror and evil of the past to the position where old enemies have now governed together for seven years in a stable, devolved Government—no apology for that at all? Just as we had to do deals with my Democratic Unionist party friends sitting over there to get to this point, so we have had to do deals with Sinn Fein to get to this point, and that was necessary for the negotiations to succeed and for peace to be established.

Mrs Villiers: Clearly, many difficult decisions were made as a result of the peace process. Some aspects of the Good Friday agreement were hard to swallow for many in the House, but I think that it is important that we reflect on the implications of the John Downey case and how a very serious mistake came to be made. Of course, as I have said to the House, we are urgently checking to ensure that similar mistakes were not made in any other cases.