15 January 2006

Sinn Fein rejection is final nail in OTR coffin

Sunday Business Post

By Eamonn McCann
15 January 2006

Peter Hain should have known his "on-the-runs" (OTR) bill was a goner when John Kelly arrived at his office on December 20 with a Sinn Féin delegation.

Kelly's brother, Michael, 17, was shot dead in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. His reaction to the bill's publication the previous month - “I'm seething with anger... [it's] diabolical'' - had shaken Sinn Féin.

The Bloody Sunday Families expect the Saville Inquiry report they spent 30 years campaigning for to be published in the next few weeks. Kelly believes his brother's killing by Soldier F will be deemed murder. The OTR bill would have dashed his hopes of seeing the soldier in the dock.

Kelly's presence alongside Sinn Féin's Pat Doherty in Hain's office signalled that the party had bowed to the families of victims of state killings. The West Tyrone MP emerged to tell journalists: “We are withdrawing from anything to do with it.”

The imminence of the Saville report helps explain Hain's futile effort to press on with the bill even after the Sinn Féin volte face had left it bereft of support in the North.

Following withdrawal of the measure, Hain emphasised that: “The issue remains to be resolved.”

The British government needs it resolved as much as and more urgently than Sinn Féin.

The OTR bill was born when Blair accepted at Weston Park, Staffordshire in July 2001 that the Republican leadership couldn't honourably declare an end to armed struggle - necessary for any relaunch of the stalled 1998 Good Friday Agreement - on terms which left some of their fighters behind, cut loose and in the lurch.

When finally published on November 9, the bill covered all “scheduled'‘ offences committed prior to the Agreement, irrespective of who they had been perpetrated by. Commentators immediately objected to the implied moral equation between terrorists and soldiers of the Queen.

More ominously for Sinn Féin, SDLP leader Mark Durkan homed in on the fact that the wishes of the Bloody Sunday families and victims of other state atrocities evidently had not been considered.

The fact that Sinn Féin had not thought it necessary to consult victims' groups lent plausibility to Durkan's claim that Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams had been so focused on the vital interests of the IRA that they had lost sight of any wider constituency.

The Sinn Féin line after December 20 was that they now saw they had been duped by the Brits - hardly the most dignified get-out.

As Durkan relished repeatedly pointing out, the inclusion of all scheduled offences had been implicit from the outset and had been made explicit at Hillsborough in April 2003 when Blair published the then latest blueprint for implementation of the Agreement.

The likely outcome of Saville may already have been on British minds: the inquiry was taking evidence from soldiers at Central Hall, Westminster. Those following the testimony were increasingly convinced the eventual report would be critical of the planning and control of the Bloody Sunday operation and would make devastating findings against a number of individual paratroopers who appeared to have no explanation, or none that they could recall, of their behaviour in Derry on the day.

The prospect of retired paratroopers in the dock at the Old Bailey or Belfast Crown Court as returning IRA fugitives were welcomed home at raucous functions in Republican pubs would have been regarded by Blair as unthinkable.

Sinn Féin's need for a deal thus provided the British with a peg on which to hang a solution of their own, arguably more serious, parallel problem.

This falls far short of the “collusion'‘ alleged by Durkan. But, arising within the octave of revelations that at least one British agent, Denis Donaldson, had long been influentially involved as an “enforcer'‘ of the peace process line within the republican movement, the OTR crux highlighted a convergence of interest between the Provos and the British. The SDLP has been delighted to exploit this, while many Republican supporters find it uncongenial to contemplate.

The Bloody Sunday dimension had turned the convergence into a crash. Blair will have seen the establishment of the Saville Tribunal in January 1998 as tidying up a specific Nationalist grievance, clearing the way for the Agreement reached just 10 weeks later.

But the Derry atrocity doesn't fit neatly into the template of the conflict adopted in the Agreement - of an irrational dispute between Protestant-Unionist and Catholic Nationalist communities, in which disinterested British forces held the ring.

Bloody Sunday, more than any other single event of the Troubles, brings British actions and interests into focus.

The political chiefs of the British Army, as well as those in the Provisional IRA, need a means of exculpating some of those they sent out to do battle.

The collapse of the OTR bill may bring it home to Hain and Blair that the Saville Report could raise more ghosts than it sets to rest.

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