Understanding the on the runs debate


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Had I not withdrawn that bill on 11 January 2006, it would have dealt with the first category of cases, namely, those who had committed crimes or were wanted by the police.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

No to English Parliament, yes to English devolution in a federal UK


Former Welsh secretary and Labour MP for Neath Peter Hain had this to say in a statement on the result:

The energy in the Scots votes, No and Yes, shows time is up for the old politics of the Westminster elite. People are fed up with a Westminster that does not listen and in the case of policies like the bedroom tax does not care.

All the Parties must now move quickly not only to deliver the promised new powers for Scotland, but to do so also for Wales, Northern Ireland and devolution to England. English regions like Cornwall and the North East, and city regions like Manchester and Leeds, also want more powers and should get these.

Peter added in a phone call with Prospect’s Josh Lowe: “If Scotland is going to get the same deal under the Barnett formula Wales has got to get a better deal [than it currently has]… You can’t keep giving all the goodies to Scotland simply because they shout the loudest.”

‘There is a strong case for the Committee Stage of English-only Bills to be scrutinised and amendments debated by English MPs only. But it would be fatal to balkanise Westminster by creating first and second class MPs for votes on the floor of the Commons. Otherwise only London MPs should decide on laws for London and so on, and crucially the Prime Minister would in practice be elected by English MPs alone since the PM would have to command a majority in the “England section’ of Westminster. The solution is devolution in England coupled with a federal UK Parliament in which English MPs would as they do now dominate, comprising 80 per cent of all MPs.”

The UK should move to a federal structure with nations, regions and communities empowered to build a new politics. This should include a democratic Second Parliamentary Chamber elected at the same time as general elections to replace the anachronistic House of Lords, representing all the nations and English regions.

The ‘Nothing For Something’ Society


Labour’s proposal to cut winter fuel allowances for higher-rate taxpayers suggests we may be joining the Tories and Liberal Democrats in dismantling the inheritance of Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan and William Beveridge – at the top of a slippery slope towards a US-style system of public services only for the poor.

If winter fuel allowances are to be means-tested, then does it stop with pensioners taxed at higher rates, or will the pressure be downward and then onto free TV licences and bus passes for pensioners and senior rail cards?

For lower earners these benefits are comforts guaranteed in old age; for middle-to-higher earners they are one of the few rewards received for contributions to the welfare pot throughout their working lives. If middle Britain ceases to benefit from the welfare budget through the few universal benefits now remaining, how can we convince them to fund the great bulk of that budget through their taxes? There is plenty of talk about a ‘something for nothing’ society, but there is a danger now of a ‘nothing for something’ society. Indeed, it is argued that millionaire pensioners like Paul McCartney should not be entitled to free bus passes. I rather doubt he uses one but if he did he would have paid for it over and over again through his taxes. Beveridge’s 1942 report, which became the cornerstone of the welfare system built by Labour, advocated universal contributions for universal benefits in the hope of cementing social solidarity.

Labour’s new winter fuel policy only saves an estimated £100m – tiny compared with the total social security and pensions budget of over £200bn. Yet, as I have already found in my low-income constituency, many now think Labour is after their pension allowances, too: hardly clever politics.

The total cost of the winter fuel allowance is between £2bn and £3bn a year which is less than two per cent of the total budget. Means-testing is administratively costly, time-consuming and inefficient because of the many varied combinations of assets, capital and earnings among pensioners.

If means-testing went further than Labour’s proposal it would also create real unfairness at the cliff edge for pensioners on modest or low incomes. With the stigmatisation of benefit claimants already in overdrive, cutting back on universalism will marginalise and demonise.

The coalition’s erosion of universal child benefit has created real anomalies and unfairness. A family where one parent is earning more than £50,000 loses out while a family where each parent earns £45,000 (a total of £90,000) keeps it. The horrendous spending and economic predicament an incoming Labour government would face means restoring child benefit to top-rate taxpayers at a cost of £2.3bn cannot be a priority. But it would be nice to retain it as an aim.

Finally there is the troubling question as to whether the party is being dragooned into accepting Tory-Liberal Democrat spending plans after the next election. In which case why would voters choose a half-hearted Labour surrogate when the Tories promise the real thing?

The ‘nothing for something’ society

We need to up our game


Especially given we were fighting county councils which were natural Tory or Lib Dem territory, Labour had some good results last Thursday: new mayors in Doncaster and North Tyneside, taking control of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire councils, and even winning a county council seat in Witney – Cameron’s backyard. Our progress in the south was encouraging in places like Cambridge and Norwich where we need to win MPs in 2015.

The results showed we’ve come a long way under the leadership of Ed Miliband since 2010, but they also showed we have a way to go. If a general election was held tomorrow, Labour wouldn’t win a majority. This was always going to be a big ask – under any leader – after our terrible result in 2010.
But Ed has made great strides over the last two years, we have re-energised our activists, rebuilt our base, reached out to disaffected Lib Dems – all crucial steps to victory in 2015.

We’re half way there, both in terms of time lapsed and progress made. I’m confident we’ve done enough to stop the Tories winning outright, and produce another hung parliament. But the truth is if we want a majority in 2015, we need to be performing better than we are now.

The old Tory-Labour duopoly has been broken. UKIP will remain a force at the next general election, with momentum from next year’s European elections. The right will remain split, at the Tories’ expense. The Lib Dems will do badly in the national share of the vote but probably hold onto all or most of the seats where they are well dug in and contesting with the Tories; where they are fighting us they will lose. Labour is well placed in this new f our-party arena.

While we shouldn’t dismiss people’s concerns about Europe and immigration, this is not what will decide the next election. Nigel Farage will not be prime minister. Labour’s focus f or the next two years should be squarely on the economy and living standards.

We cannot afford to be equivocal about our economic policy. We need to be more up front with the public about our intentions. Yes, we will borrow more in the short term in order to generate the growth that will reduce borrowing in the medium term. It makes sense to do so with interest rates so low. We will borrow to invest in new homes, in major infrastructure projects, refurbishing schools, creating employment. Schemes that will stimulate the economy. But we will nevertheless run a tight fiscal regime.

The Tories are trying to cut their way out of the recession. We need to be clear we would grow our way out of it, a less painful and ultimately more successful approach. We need to make this case with confidence and def end it robustly.

I’m confident Labour can win the economic argument if Ed has the support of a loyal team around him, it’s important that all members of the shadow cabinet play their full role in explaining and def ending Labour’s policy and approach. Labour’s Treasury team need to get out on the stump now and work even harder. It shouldn’t just be left to Ed and Harriet to carry the heavy load, whether on the World at One, the Today Programme or anywhere else.

Victory in 2015 is in our grasp, and we’ve made great strides toward it under Ed’s leadership so far. But ‘one more heave’ won’t deliver a majority. We need to up our game.



When the National Front met its match

The anti-racist politics of the 1970s gained a wider audience than a conventional political campaign, recalls Peter Hain.

Were it not for the launch of the Anti-Nazi League in 1977, the disturbing rise in the National Front may well have continued. In the mid-1970s they had pushed the Liberals into fourth place in parliamentary by-elections and in the 1977 Greater London Council elections polled fully 10 per cent of the vote.

Just as significant, they had attracted some following among disaffected working-class youngsters unable to get a job, and there was something of a fashion for Nazi insignia and regalia among ‘skinheads’ who menacingly shaved their heads and wore heavy boots. Wherever the National Front was active there was also a disturbing inevitability about rises in local racist violence and intimidation.

Yet, despite good intentions to oppose the National Front, trade union and Labour party activity had no impact because it was organised in a traditional way that never touched the problem.

Instead, the ANL organised with real urgency, stressing unity in action, not endless theorising or repetitive meetings. It fused anti-racist politics with the popular youth culture of the day – probably the first such protest group to achieve this – and thereby gained a wider audience that would not have touched a conventional political campaign with a barge-pole.

Working-class youngsters swang behind the ANL in a way that had never been achieved before. The contribution of rock music or, to be more precise, the punk and reggae music of the late 1970s, was crucial. Rock Against Racism, national carnivals and local gigs involved huge numbers of people and were organised jointly with the ANL. Anti-racist politics remained deadly serious, but for the first time it could also be fun.

Another factor contributing to its success was the self-organisation implicit in the campaign. Thus we had ‘Teachers Against the Nazis’, ‘Students Against the Nazis’, ‘Miners Against the Nazis’ – even ‘Vegetarians Against the Nazis’ and ‘Skateboarders Against the Nazis’, each with their own badges and leaflets, taking their own initiatives and involving their own people. Within a year of its launch the Anti-Nazi League had mobilised hundreds of thousands of people across the country either to act within their own peer groups, workplaces, schools, colleges or local communities, or to join together at local and national events.

Wherever the National Front tried to demonstrate or leaflet, they were opposed by the ANL, and were denied platforms to spread their hate. This confrontation strategy was highly controversial. But I still believe it was essential to mass in this way in order to prevent the National Front swaggering through black or Jewish communities and causing violence as a result, just as when the Blackshirts, led by Oswald Mosley and targeting Jewish communities, were physically stopped by leftwing activists in Cable Street in London’s East End in October 1936.

As a result, within a few years the National Front was put out of business and one of its leaders, Martin Webster, publicly admitted that the ANL had caused this.

Were it not for the ANL’s successor, Unite Against Facism, the British National party and the English Defence League – exploiting Islamophobia as well – would equally not have suffered their recent catastrophic decline. They too have been unable to organise and demonstrate successfully.

Margaret Hodge increased her majority in Barking at the last general election despite the BNP also increasing its vote in large part because, as she graciously acknowledged at a UAF conference, of the anti-fascist work allied to community organising done there.