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Assembly votes to condemn secret 'letters of comfort'

Published 01/03/2014

John Manley Political Reporter




A DUP motion condemning the secret deal that saw 187 'letters of comfort' issued to republican suspects was yesterday passed convincingly by the Stormont assembly.

After more than two hours of often boisterous debate, MLAs voted by 58 to 27 in support of calls for the British government to restore victims' confidence through a judicial inquiry.

Given British prime minister David Cameron's pledge on Thursday to hold a judge-led probe into the o n-the-run (OTR) controversy, the outcome of the special assembly sitting was largely academic.

However, almost all MLAs turnedup to debate the motion, which had been proposed earlier in the week by senior DUP members, including leader Peter Robinson.

Opening the debate, Mr Robinson described the collapse of the case against John Downey as "morally outrageous and an affront to justice".

The 61-year-old Co Donegal man had been on trial for the 1982 Hyde Park bomb in which four British soldiers were killed.

The trial ended dramatically on Tuesday when it emerged that Mr Downey had been sent a letter in 2007 confirming he was not being pursued by the British authorities.

"It was followed by outrage, that outrage, I have to say, was not manufactured or synthetic, it was real, it was an outrage felt by victims, it was an outrage felt by those within the political process that they had been by-passed by the British government and by Sinn Fein," Mr Robinson said.

The DUP leader said that if the British government honoured the terms of a written statement from Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, the 187 letters would no longer be a "free pass" that enabled people to avoid arrest and prosecution.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of threatening the stability of power sharing and engaging in political posturing ahead of forthcoming elections.

"I am frustrated that the stability of these institutions have been irresponsibly threatened this week and a sense of crisis has replaced the much-needed focus that we needed to get agreement on issues relating to the past," the Mid Ulster MLA said.

"I am frustrated that those historically opposed to the peace process and to power sharing are being allowed to chip away at the process by using legacy issues as a vehicle to pursue their negative and rejectionist agenda."

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell called for the disclosure of any other secret deals which had been struck.

"We must know, we must get all the information, we must achieve honesty, openness and transparency around all these issues, starting with rejecting any possibility of secret deals going forward," he said.

He accused the Tony Blair's Labour administration and former secretary of state Peter Hain of cynicism.

Dr McDonnell said they and Sinn Fein has shown "contempt for our parliamentary democracy and antipathy and disdain for victims".

"The structures of government must be and must feel to be fully accountable to our people - power must fundamentally lie with the people on the street, the citizens," the South Belfast MLA said.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt branded the OTR scheme, which saw potential police suspects given assurances that they would not be arrested, a "perversion of justice".

He said the actions of Sinn Fein over the OTR issue had effectively killed-off the process chaired by Richard Haass, addressing flags, parades and the past.

"Let me make clear, for the Ulster Unionist Party not only is Haass over but the party leaders [meetings

to discuss Haass] is over -- and it is over because of Sinn Fein and bad faith," he said.

Alliance leader David Ford was at pains to stress that he had no role in administering the OTR letters system.

He said that role was carried out by a senior official from the Northern Ireland Office who the Department of Justice bore no responsibility for.

Mr Ford said the episode highlighted the need to refocus minds on the political process.

"Whatever our differences this afternoon we have to see whether we can build something different and a different, shared future for all our people," Mr Ford said.

TUV leader Jim Allister describesd the OTR letters as a "sordid arrangement".

"It subverts not only the political process but the judicial process, and those who perfected it were the British government and the IRA through its surrogates, Sinn Fein," the North Antim MLA said.

"Of course, it is made worse by the fact that it was kept secret."