Former Prime Minister Tony Blair engaged in a “deliberate deception by omission” by failing to tell the majority of politicians in Northern Ireland about the agreement his government struck with Sinn Fein to deal with on-the-run republicans, Stormont’s First Minister has said.
Peter Robinson heavily criticised the conduct of the previous Labour administration as he addressed an emergency meeting at Stormont to debate the controversy over letters sent to more than 180 terror suspects informing them the authorities in the UK were not seeking them.
Democratic Unionist leader Mr Robinson said his predecessor Ian Paisley had written to Mr Blair when he was in power asking for assurances that no concessions had been given to Sinn Fein about on-the-runs (OTRs).
He said the reply stated there were no plans to legislate on the issue, and no amnesty had been offered but, Mr Robinson said, it did not make mention of the administrative scheme to send OTRs assurance letters.
“The answer that there were no plans to legislate and no amnesty would be introduced was a deliberate deception, a deception by omission, for the Government could easily at that stage have indicated that there was an administrative process which included giving letters to OTRs was under way,” he told MLAs
The recalled Assembly convened shortly after another Stormont minister claimed applications for five on-the-run republicans for assurance letters were still being considered by the current government.
The disclosure by Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister David Ford has created uncertainty over whether the administrative scheme is still being run by the coalition Government.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said her predecessor, Conservative MP Owen Paterson, had informed Sinn Fein that no new cases would be dealt with by the current Government, apart from the 38 it inherited on taking office, and had urged the republican party to bring new applications to the devolved authorities at Stormont.
But Mr Ford said his understanding from a discussion with a senior NIO official yesterday morning was that there were five cases still being dealt with by the Government and that those only emerged in late 2012 – more than two years after the coalition came to power.
Mr Ford said he was assured that the NIO had responsibility for the cases and not his devolved department.
“The senior (NIO) official I spoke to thought there were five cases still under examination and that they were their responsibility,” the Justice Minister said.
Details of 180 plus letters sent to OTRs emerged when the case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed. John Downey, 62, from Donegal, denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London.
The case against him was ended because Government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.
But the collapse shone the light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland reacting with fury, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.
Opening the Assembly debate, Mr Robinson said: “The outcome of the Downey case was morally outrageous and an affront to justice, but more than that it exposed to the full glare of public attention a scheme that had been agreed well over a decade ago by Sinn Fein and the UK Government.”
The Stormont Assembly was recalled for the additional sitting following a request by Mr Robinson at the height of this week’s political crisis over the scheme.
When Mr Robinson made the announcement on Wednesday, shortly after he had threatened to resign over the issue, there were fears the future of the power-sharing executive would be on the line during the plenary session.
But those concerns receded when the Democratic Unionist leader withdrew his ultimatum in response to an announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron that he was ordering a judge-led review of the matter.