AN imminent crisis in the Stormont institutions was avoided last night as Peter Robinson withdrew his threat to resign after Downing Street pledged an inquiry into the On the Run (OtR) letters.
British prime minister David Cameron said a judge would be appointed to investigate the operation of the scheme which this week saw the collapse of a case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bomb.
Co Donegal man John Downey (61) walked free from court when it emerged he had received a letter from the northern Ireland Office (NIO) giving assurances that he was not wanted for questioning in relation to IRA offences. It was subsequently revealed that more than 187 similar letters had been issued to republican OTRs since 2000.
Unionists reacted with outrage to the revelation, insisting they had no knowledge of an administrative scheme providing effective immunity to those suspected of IRA offences.
But republicans insist that while the OtR letters may not have been common knowledge, unionists were aware of a British government scheme to address the issue. Their claim has been supported by former secretary of state Peter Hain and Tony Blair's former chief of staff. The episode sparked the greatest threat to the Stormont institutions since the DUP entered government in 2007, with Peter Robinson threatening to resign if there was not a judicial inquiry into the affair.
However, yesterday's lunchtime announcement by Mr Cameron seems to averted the deepening of the crisis at Stormont. The inquiry will be conducted by an independent judge who will produce a "full public account" of the operation and extent of the OtR scheme.
According to the NIO, the probe will determine whether any letters sent through the scheme contained errors. It will also make recommendations on related matters drawn to the attention of the inquiry, which will be published at the end of may -- just days after the european and local government elections. Mr Cameron told a Downing Street press conference he wanted to get "right to get to the bottom of what happened" in the Downey case.
"the case has already been referred to the Police Ombudsman and as the first minister has said, we should have a full independent examination of the whole operation of this scheme," he said. The prime minister said it was right to take swift action.
"it is vital that we deal properly with the events of the past but make sure this never undermines our determination to build a shared and prosperous future for the next generation so that we never again return to the horrors of the past," he said.
A statement from Secretary of State theresa Villiers said her predecessor was made aware of the OtR list on coming to office in may 2010. But she insisted the letters sent to republican OtRs made it clear that they "did not amount to immunity, exemption or amnesty". Ms Villiers said that to her knowledge, the British government did not inform either the first minister or the justice minister about the scheme. Mr Robinson said he was happy with the inquiry's terms of reference, though notably the letters will not be rescinded as he had initially demanded.
"I think the prime minister and the secretary of state have been prompt -- they have dealt with the issues seriously and in a manner that is satisfactory to me," he said.
"I do not intend to resign on the basis that if you get what you want why on earth would you want to resign?" mr Robinson denied that the crisis had been manufactured.
Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey described the inquiry as a "political fig leaf for the DUP" and stressed that the scheme had been agreed by the British and Irish governments more than a decade ago.
"it has already been made clear as recently as yesterday by the British attorney general that the scheme in operation was lawful and proper," the South Belfast MLA said.
"Given that reality i have to say i'm not sure what there is to inquire into." TUV leader Jim Allister said mr Robinson had "buckled within 24 hours of playing the hard man". The interim chair of the northern Ireland Human Rights Commission John Corey said he was concerned about the implications of the OtR letters on victims and survivors.
"this development reinforces once again the need for an overall and overarching mechanism for dealing with Northern Ireland's past," he said.