No amnesty for the IRA 187! That was the (apparently) tough message from Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers in response to the revelation that many potential suspects of crimes during the Troubles had received “letters of comfort” suggesting they would not be prosecuted.
These have been called “get out of jail” cards by critics of the scheme, initiated under the Labour Government in the context of Northern Ireland peace negotiations. Angry Loyalists, Conservatives and others believe it amounts to an unconstitutional amnesty, never agreed by the UK Parliament. They are particularly outraged that in the case of John Downey one of the letters, sent to him by the Northern Irish police in error, caused the collapse of the Hyde Park bombing trial. His lawyers had successfully claimed abuse of process before Mr Justice Sweeney in the High Court.
So no wonder Villiers had to talk tough. But is she actually saying anything tough? Actually, no. Her speech in effect signs up to the scheme and suggests the Tories in the Government may huff and puff but will quietly leave it alone. Her statement says nothing new and changes nothing. Her main contention is this:
“They [the letters] will not protect you from arrest or from prosecution and if the police can gather sufficient evidence, you will be subject to all the due processes of law, just like anybody else.”
That’s not new, tough anti-IRA bomber policy – that’s just a description of the status of the letters. They were sent to “on the runs” (OTRs) – potential suspects of often serious terrorist crimes who had moved outside UK jurisdiction. Under the Northern Ireland peace deal those convicted offenders already in prison would be due for early release – they would serve no more than two more years for their offences. But it was difficult to know how such a principle would affect those who had evaded justice – and weren’t likely to want to rush home and put themselves on trial even if two years was the maximum likely sentence.