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Sunday 17 December 2017

British government ‘struck secret deal with Sinn Fein over amnesties’

Donegal South West TD Pearse Doherty confirms party is to hold a ‘coming home’ event for John Downey

John Downey
John Downey

Georgia Graham, Greg Harkin and Fionnan Sheahan

THE secret deal Tony Blair’s British government struck with Sinn Fein to send letters of amnesty to hundreds of suspected terrorists “undermine the Good Friday agreement" one of the architects of the historic peace process has said.

David Trimble who played an instrumental role in getting his Ulster Unionist party to accept the accord before becoming the First Minister of Northern Ireland called for a full inquiry into a scheme that has given nearly 200 Republicans suspected of atrocities in Northern Ireland immunity.

Lord Trimble, who is now a Conservative peer, said that the letters guaranteeing an effective amnesty for suspects were “not part of the process” of the Good Friday agreement and said the secret deal between the government and Sinn Fein had “serious implications” for the democratic process in Northern Ireland.

The letters, which tell a suspect that police no longer wanted them were created in the years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, to deal with those who were still on the run.

The 1998 agreement was a central development in the Northern Ireland peace process which among many other things set out how punishment for terrorist activities would be handled.

The scale of the secret deal only emerged after John Downey, a suspect in the 1982 Hyde Park Bombing, had a prosecution against him dropped because he had been given one of the letters in error.

Mr Downey, 62, had been wanted for more than 30 years for his alleged role in the one of the IRA's most notorious bombings, which saw a nail bomb tear through the ranks of the Household Cavalry on a Changing of the Guard procession.

Sinn Fein has today confirmed that it is is to hold a 'coming home' event for Mr Downey

The republican - said by supporters to have been a avid supporter of the ceasefire and the peace process - had denied the charges.

Co Clare man Downey, now living in Creeslough, Co Donegal, arrived back in Ireland last night.

Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty said a "social event" would take place at The Lagoon Bar in Termon Co Donegal this Saturday night.

A fundraising event to pay his legal fees was held at the same pub last June.

Deputy Doherty told today's Donegal Democrat that the weekend party is being held to "thank the hundreds of people from across the county and further afield" who helped raised funds for Mr Downey's legal defence.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme Mr Trimble said he knew nothing of the letter that led to the collapse of the Hyde Park Bombing trial and would “dearly like to know” who signed it off.

He added that the issue of “on the runs” had been discussed in 2005 but that the issue had gone “quiet.”

He said: “It went quiet and at some point this has been described as an administrative process that operated independently of government came into operation. I would dearly love to know who signed off on the letters.

"I don’t know anybody who knew about it .. but I try to keep myself to reasonably well informed."

Lord Trimble added: “The deal was done in such a way that kept politicians in the dark because this is not the part of the process, people make comments that this was all part of the peace process - it was not.

"We had an agreement in 1998, the Good Friday agreement and the Good Friday agreement that had a provision for prisoner release was quite clear – there would only be prisoner release there would be no amnesties.”

“I think there needs to be a proper inquiry, the inquiry that has been mentioned so far seems to be an inquiry into specific letter that went to Downey, I think we need to find out how this process came into existence and how it operated because it’s got huge implications for our democratic life if an important thing like this was done keeping ministers and other interested parties in the dark this is actually a very serious situation.

"It is a serious reflection on what happens in the government – and in our own government, did David Cameron know about it? It doesn’t look like it judging by his reaction.”

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny says the Department of Foreign Affairs was involved in the issues around the abandonment of the trial.

The North's First Minister Peter Robinson has threatened to resign unless there is a judicial inquiry into the aborted trial of the man who was accused of the 1982 IRA bombing of Hyde Park in London, which killed four soldiers.

It has emerged 187 people had received letters telling them they would not face prosecution for IRA crimes.

Mr Kenny said the Northern Executive had a mandate to resolve these issues.

"I think there was a degree of sensitivity surrounding the issue of the letters in the first instance because you didn't want to break down a process that was put in train and that was understood to be in train," he said.

"So I do hope the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland will be able to deal with this in a pragmatic fashion and that obviously the British government will respond in respect of its knowledge about this.

"Yes, the answer would be that the Department of Foreign Affairs would have been involved in the issues surrounding the Downey case," he added.

Nick Clegg, the British Deputy Prime Minister has said the Government was looking "urgently" at Mr Robinson's call for a judicial inquiry, but warned against allowing the Downey case to escalate into a "full-blown political crisis". Mr Clegg admitted that the entire Coalition government had been aware of the letters since 2010.

Mr Clegg told the Sky News Sunrise programme: "It is a very serious issue. We are looking urgently at what Peter Robinson has said and demanded. We are doing a very quick review of all the other letters in existence. We are urgently considering his view that there should be a full inquiry.

"We don't want this to escalate into a full-blown political crisis in Northern Ireland, however much we totally understand the strength of feeling around this, and that's why during the course of the day we will of course seek to respond to a lot of the very strongly held views expressed by Peter Robinson and others."

He added: "We all knew, as a Government that came into office in 2010, that this was a legacy issue which had been established by the previous government.

"My party and indeed the Conservatives... have been on record as being very against the proposal by the previous Labour government to legislate for a wider amnesty, and we want to see the rule of law always being applied. People must be held to account for their actions under the rule of law, and in the case of Mr Downey, clearly a dreadful mistake was made by him receiving that letter."

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