TONY Blair is “in effect” refusing to appear before MPs to answer questions about the so-called “comfort letters” sent to republican “on-the-run” fugitives from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Commons has heard.
Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee chair Laurence Robertson said the former prime minister has not offered his inquiry into the process any date where he could appear before it.
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Mr Blair has therefore in effect refused to come before the committee to answer questions from MPs about the scheme formulated by his Labour government, Mr Robertson said.
Raising a point of order in the Commons, he described Mr Blair’s offer to submit written evidence as totally unsatisfactory.
Speaker John Bercow said it was within the committee’s formal power to summon Mr Blair as a witness but he hoped that it did not have to be used.
The comfort letters scheme was drawn up at the request of Sinn Fein and saw about 200 letters sent to so-called on-the-runs, assuring them they were not being actively pursued by the UK authorities.
The committee’s probe was triggered by the high-profile case of John Downey, who walked free from the Old Bailey earlier this year when his prosecution for the murders of four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bomb was halted by a judge when it emerged he had been sent one of the letters in error.
Mr Robertson told the Commons: “The committee is currently looking into the administrative scheme for so-called ‘on the runs’.
“It was that scheme which caused there to be a stay put on the prosecution of someone accused of carrying out the Hyde Park bombings in 1982 when four people were killed.
“One of the most important witnesses is of course the former prime minister Tony Blair.
“Mr Blair has failed to offer us any date when he could come before the committee.
“He has not refused to do but in effect has refused to do by not offering any date.
“He has offered to submit written answers which I’m sure you will appreciate is totally unsatisfactory.
“Given the importance of this inquiry and given the sensitive nature of it, given what it means to people in Northern Ireland and indeed beyond, I wonder if you could advise the committee how we might proceed?”
Mr Bercow replied: “It is of course open to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which you so ably chair, to exercise its formal power to summon witnesses.
“But I hope that it will be possible to resolve the issue without recourse to that.
“You have made your point and exposed the issue publicly.
“I am sure that the former prime minister intends no discourtesy and will swiftly respond.
“For the record, I can also advise you that some years ago when I served as a member of the International Development Select Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Malcom Bruce, who of course continues to chair that committee, we did ask to see former prime minster Blair in relation to the Middle East peace process.
“Mr Blair did attend and addressed us knowledgeably and with alacrity so I hope you will keep your hopes alive.”
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