Wednesday 17 July 2019

Ahern urged Blair not to hunt OTRs

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were architects of the Good Friday agreement
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were architects of the Good Friday agreement

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern urged then British prime minister Tony Blair to halt the pursuit of named republican On The Run (OTR) suspects, a letter has revealed.

The co-architect of the Good Friday peace agreement said there was a strong case for not proceeding on outstanding warrants relating to conflict offences.

Those covered would have been released from prison, had they already been convicted, under the 1998 accord which ended IRA and loyalist violence.

The revelation follows remarks by former justice minister and attorney general Michael McDowell that an effective amnesty from prosecution was in place in the Republic at the time.

Mr Ahern wrote in December 1999: "The named persons are very strong supporters of the agreement and with full freedom of movement will be able to play an even more effective role, within the republican constituency in Northern Ireland and in this state, in persuading and leading those who might otherwise be sceptical towards an unqualified embrace of democratic politics and of exclusively peaceful means of promoting progress towards political objectives."

The government was a key backer of the political deal that instituted devolved power-sharing at Stormont and proceeded arms decommissioning and the disbandment of the IRA after the organisation's 1994 ceasefire.

Mr Ahern added: "I write to confirm my view and that of my Government that on grounds of public policy, related to the full implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, there is a strong case for deciding that the relevant authorities will not proceed further now, or during the continuation of a complete and unequivocal ceasefire, in regard to certain outstanding warrants or any proceedings that may be subsequently contemplated in all the relevant jurisdictions in Ireland and in the UK."

He added: "In particular, at this time, and within the framework I have suggested above, my Government consider that there are particularly strong grounds of public policy, given that the political and security situations in Northern Ireland have been transformed by the establishment of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and by the ceasefires that have now been firmly in place for a substantial period, for deciding not to proceed further."

He was referring to individuals whose identities were withheld. The former Fianna Fail leader added: "Such a decision will be of particularly strong beneficial effect in regard to promoting the implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement."

His letter was published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs. The committee is holding an inquiry into a scheme formulated by the last British Labour government at the request of Sinn Fein that saw about 200 letters sent to OTRs assuring them they were not being pursued by the UK authorities.

The probe was triggered after John Downey walked free from a London court earlier this year when his prosecution over the murders of four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing in London was halted by a judge after he received one of the letters in error.

Mr Ahern has been hailed as an international peacemaker after helping bring political stability in Northern Ireland. He enjoyed a good working relationship with Mr Blair and they were key players in securing the Good Friday Agreement.

He once said: "Tony Blair has been a true friend to me, a true friend of Ireland."

Only days before the peace deal was signed, Mr Ahern's mother Julia died, but the premier went straight from her funeral in Dublin back to Belfast for the conclusion of the negotiations.

He built political bridges with traditionally hostile unionist leaders such as David Trimble and the Rev Ian Paisley. But the DUP has been critical of aspects of Irish conduct in dealing with fugitives from justice.

Ex-Northern Ireland secretary Lord Mandelson has said the Irish and US governments lobbied for a pro-nationalist/republican agenda during peace process talks so, as a consequence, he often found himself having to put the counter position.

The Irish government has denied there was an amnesty for IRA killers operating in the Republic for more than a decade.

Families and survivors of the worst single atrocity of the Troubles, the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which killed 34 people and were later claimed by the UVF, are demanding a public statement about claims by Mr McDowell that a blind eye was turned to Provo fugitives.

Mr McDowell has said there was "a consensus" in the Republic dating back at least 14 years that the gardai would no longer be prosecuting historical paramilitary cases.

He said: "In fact what happened in the Republic was that there was just a decision by the guards to use their resources to prevent current crime and current offences and not to go back over the IRA's campaign of violence."

The issue of OTRs has been highlighted following the failed prosecution of Mr Downey.

Household Cavalry Lieutenant Anthony "Denis" Daly, 23, died in the explosion in Hyde Park on July 20 1982 alongside Trooper Simon Tipper, 19, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young, 19, and 36-year-old Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright.

A judge-led review of the wider letters scheme ordered by British prime minister David Cameron and published in the summer found it was systematically flawed in operation but not unlawful in principle.

But Lady Justice Hallett, who conducted the probe, said a "catastrophic" error had been made in the Downey case.

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