04 December 2005

Political rows surround ‘on-the-runs’ legislation

Sunday Business Post

04 December 2005
By Paul T Colgan

In politics, strangely enough, the best way to play your cards is to lay them face upwards on the table. – HG Wells.

After all the protestations, the teary-eyed speeches, the indignation and the moralising, the so-called ‘on the runs' (OTRs) will soon be coming home.

Paramilitary members suspected of being involved in incidents such as the Enniskillen bombing will be free to return to Ireland within months, while members of the British security forces who colluded with loyalist death squads are likely to escape prosecution.

By all accounts, the Taoiseach is determined to have presidential pardons granted to a handful of paramilitaries, and the British prime minister is willing to force through parliament similar legislation at all costs.

For those who have taken even a passing interest in the peace process in the past five years, the return of the OTRs is neither startling nor surprising.

The two governments hammered out a deal at the Weston Park talks in 2001 designed to cover those individuals who missed out on the amnesty granted to hundreds of paramilitary prisoners released from the Maze prison following the Good Friday Agreement.

The deal, well-publicised at the time, was later enshrined in the Joint Declaration of 2003. It has been described as a tidying-up operation.

But all the political parties in Ireland and Britain, barring Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the British Labour Party, now oppose the legislation proposed by the British and Irish governments.

Fine Gael has claimed that Bertie Ahern's plans to grant presidential pardons to paramilitary suspects and escaped prisoners will drag President Mary McAleese into a constitutional crisis.

The DUP, just as it objected to the original prisoner release scheme, opposes the return of the OTRs on the grounds that it is unjust and will constitute an intolerable ordeal for the victims of paramilitary violence.

The SDLP is calling for the scrapping of the proposed British legislation, as it enables members of the security forces who colluded in the killing of innocent nationalists to avoid justice.

In the Republic, an eligibility board will vet applications from OTRs before passing them to the Department of Justice for its consideration.

The cabinet will then study candidates before finally recommending to President McAleese that they be granted a presidential pardon.

In the North, individuals wanted for questioning by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) will be granted similarly smooth passage under the terms of the Northern Ireland Offences Bill.

When an OTR arrives home, the PSNI or the Director of Public Prosecutions will inform them that there is a case pending against them.

On foot of this, the OTR will then instruct their solicitor to make a submission to a quasi-judicial tribunal set up to examine the charges levelled at them.

There will be no requirement for the OTR to attend the tribunal.

If found guilty of the charges, the individual will then receive a certificate that frees him or her on licence.

Only if they re-offend will they be subject to a prison sentence.

The two processes will allow several notable OTRs to return to Ireland if they wish.

Among those free to enter the North without fear of prosecution will be:

Charlie Caufield - a former republican prisoner who has been named by unionist MPs in the British House of Commons as having taken part in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987. Caufield is thought to reside in the US

Sinn Féin's US representative, Rita O'Hare. O'Hare has been on the run for over 30 years after she jumped bail in 1975. She is wanted for questioning about the ambushing of a squad of British soldiers in 1971

IRA man Liam Averill, nicknamed ‘Mrs Doubtfire' after he escaped from the Maze prison dressed as a woman in 1997, is still at large and thought to be living in Donegal

Owen Carron, Bobby Sands' election agent and former MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, who jumped bail in 1986 after he had been arrested for possession of a machine-gun

Evelyn Glenhomes, wanted in connection with a number of IRA bombings in England in the 1980s

Robert Campbell, thought to be living in the Republic, is still wanted by the PSNI after he escaped from Belfast's Crumlin Road jail in 1980

Michael Rogan, suspected of bombing British army headquarters in Lisburn in 1996

Michael Quinn, wanted by both the British and the German authorities in connection with a mortar attack on a British army base in Osnabruck, Germany in 1996.

While detailed legislation has only made its way into the public domain in recent weeks, the basic plans were sketched out by the two governments over four years ago.

What has happened in the meantime has alarmed nationalists and republicans.

Under the terms of the proposed British legislation, members of the security forces found guilty of a ‘scheduled offence' committed before Good Friday 1998 will also be granted amnesty.

The SDLP, backed by the Labour party, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats, has alleged that Sinn Féin knowingly signed up to this deal.

Leader Mark Durkan has accused Sinn Féin of “colluding'‘ with the British security forces in covering up crimes committed against nationalists.

Sinn Féin denies this, saying that not once during negotiations were members of the security forces mentioned.

Republicans allege that officials from the Northern Ireland Office managed to force this aspect into legislation within recent months and behind the back of Sinn Féin.

One upshot of the legislation is that the soldiers responsible for killing civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday would escape prosecution, whatever the findings of the Saville Inquiry.

It is also conceivable that members of the security forces suspected of involvement in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings could benefit from the legislation.

Equally alarming for nationalists is the possibility that scores of British soldiers and RUC officers who colluded with loyalist death squads could avoid justice.

Tribunals on the murders of Catholic solicitors Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, while perhaps getting to the bottom of what went on between the security forces and loyalist gunmen, would not lead to the imprisonment of those involved.

The work of the British-appointed Historical Inquiries Team, set up to examine hundreds of unsolved murders in the North, could also be scuppered by the new legislation.

The team is obliged to report any evidence it unearths of apparent RUC wrongdoing to the North's Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan.

According to informed sources, scores of cases are likely to be referred to O'Loan once the team formally takes up its task next month.

The SDLP has called for the legislation to be scrapped, while Sinn Féin maintains that it is demanding that the offending clause dealing with the security forces be removed.

Neither scenario is likely.

While the bill is expected to encounter severe difficulties in the British House of Lords, Westminster-watchers still expect that it will eventually see the light of day, albeit with some minor modifications.

Sources said Blair was determined to wrap up the issue as quickly as possible, and would resort to invoking the Parliament Act, which enables the House of Commons to override any objections from the upper house.

Many in the British security apparatus have a vested interest in seeing the legislation pushed through.

Irish government sources said that any concerns over presidential pardons being unconstitutional were misplaced, and the plans had the backing of the Attorney General.

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