Leaders: Questions over IRA-suspect letters

John Downey walked free from court after the Hyde Park bomb trial collapsed. Picture: Getty
John Downey walked free from court after the Hyde Park bomb trial collapsed. Picture: Getty
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WHAT was the basis of assurances given to suspected IRA terrorists that they were not wanted by any UK police force?

Who knew of these assurances, who was consulted and did the highly discreet nature of this scheme amount to a cover up? Just how was a suspect in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing sent a letter that was subsequently found to be “a catastrophic mistake”? And what happens now to resolve these issues without jeopardising the Northern Ireland peace accord?

Lady Justice Hallett was tasked by Prime Minister David Cameron to produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme, and to determine whether any letters contained errors. After five months of research and drafting, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that her review falls short. It finds that there were “significant system failures” in the extent and operation of the scheme and that the letter sent to IRA bomber suspect John Downey was the result of a catastrophic mistake by police in Northern Ireland.

What has caused particular ire with Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson was the secrecy surrounding the scheme and the evasive nature of the answers given to date.

It is not surprising that the review has been labelled somewhat confusing and, at times, contradictory. Among its conclusions are that the “On the Runs” scheme was not secret but that it was kept “below the radar” – a fine legal distinction that may be lost on IRA bomb victims.

Lady Justice Hallett also concludes that there was no evidence that any party other than Sinn Fein knew of the letters, but states dozens of other politicians should have known that a process was in operation. But how could they have known when the scheme was being deliberately kept “below the radar”?

The report is also shy in identifying specific units and individuals for the “significant systemic issues” that she found and, instead, makes general criticisms of the police, government and others. Responsibility is not assigned. That may work to pour oil on these troubled waters but it does not meet the brief of “full public account”.

It may be argued that governments are often faced with hard choices and have to undertake questionable actions for the greater good – in this case securing the peace accord. But this project was not one of them. It was less a policy approved by government than a scheme of expediency that evolved. Critical decisions were not taken by senior ministers but by people who were keen not to let ministers know what was being done.

This vague and woolly report is well short of the full explanations required. This was an operation that was bound to be difficult for the relatives of victims, and the conspiracy was to keep it away from them rather than face intense public criticism.

More needs to be done to identify those behind it.

Lib Dem U-turn won’t move voters

About the kindest thing that can be said about the move by the Liberal Democrats to detach themselves from the controversial “bedroom tax” policy is that it marks a desire by the party to more clearly 
differentiate itself from the Conservatives.

The party’s standing with the voters has plunged and a Westminster general election is now just ten months away.

But the implementation of the bedroom tax – or the removal of the spare bedroom subsidy as the government prefers to call it – would not have been possible without Liberal Democrat support at all crucial stages. Its MPs voted for this policy. There would not have been a bedroom tax were it not for the Liberal Democrats.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, lost no time in pointing out that when Labour tabled a bill in February to scrap the policy, Liberal Democrats were nowhere to be seen.

The Conservatives described the switch as a “cynical PR stunt”. They said the Lib Dems had never demanded the restoration of the spare room subsidy in private.

It’s hard not to see the latest Lib Dem re-positioning as anything other than hypocritical.

The policy was brought in with the aim of tackling a spiralling housing welfare bill.

It is estimated that the policy change would save £500 million a year. But it was never going to be popular.

And so it has proved. The rationale for the policy change – that council tenants are having difficulty in finding alternative accommodation – is not new.

Voters are unlikely to be much moved by the Lib Dems’ death- bed confession.