Former prime minister Tony Blair engaged in a “deliberate deception by omission” by failing to tell most politicians in Northern Ireland about the agreement his government struck with Sinn Fein to deal with on-the-run republicans, Stormont’s First Minister has said.
Peter Robinson heavily criticised the conduct of the previous Labour administration as he addressed an emergency meeting at Stormont to debate the controversy over letters sent to more than 180 terror suspects, saying the authorities in the UK were not seeking them.
Democratic Unionist leader Mr Robinson said his predecessor Ian Paisley had written to Mr Blair when he was in power asking for assurances that no concessions had been given to Sinn Fein about on-the-runs (OTRs).
He said the reply stated there were no plans to legislate on the issue and no amnesty had been offered but, Mr Robinson said, it did not make mention of the administrative scheme to send OTRs assurance letters.
“This was deception by omission, for the government could easily at that stage have indicated that there was an administrative process, which included giving letters to OTRs, that was under way,” he told Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
The recalled Assembly convened shortly after another Stormont minister claimed applications for five on-the-run republicans for assurance letters were still being considered by the current government.
The disclosure by Northern Ireland’s justice minister David Ford has created uncertainty over whether the administrative scheme is still being run by the coalition government.
Opening the Assembly debate, and referring to Hyde Park bomb suspect John Downey being spared trial, Mr Robinson said: “The outcome of the Downey case was morally outrageous and an affront to justice, but more than that it exposed to the full glare of public attention a scheme that had been agreed well over a decade ago by Sinn Fein and the UK government.
“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.”
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said people had the right to know if any other secret deals had been struck.
“It’s impossible to have a proper debate on issues that haven’t been fully disclosed. 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,” he said.
He accused the Labour administration and former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain of cynicism, alleging that he and the British government were “working with Sinn Fein to demonstrate contempt for our parliamentary democracy and antipathy and disdain for victims.”
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt branded the scheme “perverse” as he paraphrased a famous Orwellian line.
“All citizens are subject to the law, but some citizens are less subject than others,” he said.