Blair’s warning over on-the-runs: peace process ‘still fragile’
Tony Blair today warned the government that peace in Northern Ireland was “still fragile.” He was being asked whether it was right for the current Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers to describe the on the run scheme letters issued to republicans as worthless.
Ms Villiers told the Northern Ireland select committee last September; “The government no longer stands behind them because we cannot be certain that they were accurate and reliable at the time.”
The DUP MP Ian Paisley Jnr had accused Mr Blair of himself being on the run from the committee after the former prime minister had tried to avoid giving evidence to the committee. Mr Blair was also accused of limiting his evidence session to one hour maximum. Mr Blair started his evidence session saying he was happy to chat for as long as it took and the one-hour limit suggestion had come from the committee.
Ian Paisley Jnr called on Mr Blair to turn his chair round and face the victims’ families sitting behind him and apologise to them for the on the run (OTR) scheme that sent letters of comfort to republican suspects assuring them they would not face proceedings if they returned to the UK jurisdiction because of lack of evidence. Mr Blair apologised for mistakes made in the implementation of the OTR scheme but not for the scheme itself.
He said it was a judgement call to concede the letters of comfort that fell way short of the amnesty for all OTR’s Sinn Fein was seeking. He said setting up the scheme and then accelerating its implementation was “absolutely critical… absolutely and fundamentally paramount to the process.” Some MPs on the committee disputed that strongly.
Ian Paisley Jnr gave Mr Blair a rough ride at the Northern Ireland select committee hearing this afternoon in the questioning over the OTR scheme. He asked if the fondness for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness which Mr Blair talks about in his memoirs had clouded his judgement. Mr Blair said it had not.
The select committee is planning to issue its report this month and a draft is pretty much written. It remains to be seen if Mr Blair’s evidence generates much re-editing. It’s believed the existing draft attacks Mr Blair (and the former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain) pretty sharply.
Mr Blair, as so often, showed the command of argument, language and the social intelligence that made him such a potent politician. He even managed to turn things round and question the present government’s stewardship of the peace process, while at the same time saying with statesmanlike detachment that he wasn’t there to pass judgement on people now in charge.
Most of the victims’ families who spoke after the Tony Blair evidence session said it had done them some good to see him cross-examined by MPs. They also said there was no proper apology and there was too much appeasement of terrorists. Phyllis Carruthers, who is the widow of reserve constable Dougie Carruthers, murdered by the IRA in May 1991, said she was glad to see the former prime minister cross-examined at length by MPs and got “a certain amount of comfort” from the exchanges. But she still felt Tony Blair had been a “puppet” of the republicans.
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