Further revelations about the controversial “letters of comfort” scheme that Tony Blair’s government introduced sparked fury Wednesday, when it emerged that it allowed 95 IRA fugitives linked to 295 murders to walk free.
The so-called "letters of comfort" – criticised as "get-out-of-jail cards" - told the suspects they were no longer wanted for crimes committed during the 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.
The assistant chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Drew Harris, told an inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs parliamentary committee that the IRA "On the Runs" who received letters were linked to 200 killings. The PSNI later corrected this, saying it was 200 incidents connected to 295 murders murders between 1969 and 1998. Harris also told the British inquiry that a total of 228 people had received such letters.
The secret letters were part of the background to the Northern Ireland peace agreement between Republicans who wanted a united Ireland (mostly Catholics) and Unionists who wanted to remain part of Britain (mostly Protestants). The letters only came to light in February in a London court case over an Irish Republican Army bombing. Harris (pictured left) is the first person to publicly reveal the full extent of the scheme.
Under the letters deal, in return for assurances that IRA operatives were not of interest to the police, the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, agreed to a broader peace pact under which the IRA would disarm and Sinn Fein would support a reformed police force and the rule of law. Nationalists had for years accused the Northern Ireland police of collusion and anti-Catholic bias.
Harris’s revelations have rocked the uneasy governing alliance in Belfast, where Unionists share power with the republican party Sinn Fein. MP Ian Paisley Junior, for the Democratic Unionist party, told the committee, “I must say, it breaks my heart today, as a citizen of Northern Ireland, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, (that) 95 people are holding letters excusing the murder of (295) people. That breaks my heart.”
Simmering political tensions
Political tension in Northern Ireland was already simmering following the arrest last week of Sinn Fein president and MP Gerry Adams over another hand-from-the-grave case related to The Troubles. Adams was a key driver of the peace process and the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
Northern Ireland police arrested him following new evidence over his suspected involvement in the murder 42 years ago of a widowed mother of 10, Jean McConville, whom the IRA had wrongly thought was an informer. She was dragged from the arms of her screaming children, shot in the head and buried.
After his release without charge last Sunday, Adams said police told him they thought he had been a senior leader of the IRA in Belfast at the time and so must have known about McConville’s killing. Adams has always strongly denied both claims.
On Wednesday, Adams made a formal complaint to Northern Ireland police over how he had been interrogated while he was held for four days.
He said, “My arrest and the very serious attempt to charge me with IRA membership is damaging to the peace process and the political institutions.” He called on the government in the Republic of Ireland to defend Northern Ireland’s peace deal and stop Britain from “persecuting Republicans” in the wake of his arrest.
He pointed out that the British Government had failed to pursue soldiers and Unionist paramilitaries involved in unlawful killings.
Adams arrest political?
Adams claimed his arrest was political because it came in the lead-up to elections in the European Parliament on 25 May. Sinn Fein is the third-largest political party in the Republic of Ireland and had hoped to win up to three of the 11 Irish seats in the next European Parliament. “They did not have to do this in the middle of an election campaign,” Adams said.
Sinn Fein, once a marginal player in the Irish Republic, has been gaining political traction since the onslaught of the economic crisis that brought about the crash of the famed “Celtic Tiger”.
Prosecutors will now decide whether to pursue the Adams case.
Even if Adams never goes to trial, however, the controversy over the “comfort letters” will continue. Britain’s Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, has ordered a judicial inquiry into the scheme, which was established by a Labour Government. The inquiry is headed by Lady Justice Hallet and is due to report in the next few months.
Meanwhile, the legal validity of the letters and the degree of protection they offer is being challenged by a relative of some of those killed in Northern Ireland.
Elizabeth Morrison lost her son, his partner and their seven-year-old daughter in a bomb blast on Belfast’s Loyalist Shankill Road in 1993. They were buying a wreath for Morrison’s husband, who had died two days earlier. The couple’s two other children were orphaned.
Last month Elizabeth Morrison, now 79, filed papers at Belfast High Court challenging the “On the Run” deal and asking whether the Shankill bombers were among those granted comfort letters.
Date created : 2014-05-08