Blair’s NI achievements ‘forgotten’

Posted By: September 09, 2014

  UTV.  Monday, 08 September 2014

A senior aide to former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said the Labour politician’s involvement with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan over-shadowed his achievements in Northern Ireland. Blair's NI achievements 'forgotten' Jonathan Powell was senior advisor to Tony Blair. (© UTV) Jonathan Powell, who was Mr Blair’s chief-of-staff during the time of the Good Friday Agreement, said he hoped history would judge the former PM more kindly than current assessments of his legacy. Mr Powell was giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the ‘on-the-run’ scheme which was established under Mr Blair’s government to deal with republicans suspected of terrorist activity. He portrayed the issue as one of countless tackled by Mr Blair in his efforts to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland. Mr Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were in power when the landmark Good Friday peace agreement was signed in 1998. Mr Powell was asked to reflect on the public perception of Mr Blair in the context of Northern Ireland. He said: “People largely remember Iraq or Afghanistan, whatever it might be, and I think he actually deserves a huge amount of credit for what he did and the amount of time he devoted to it and I hope that history will be kinder to him than current events.” Very few people talk about Tony Blair and Northern Ireland – I think it’s a shame actually that they forget the effort that he and Bertie Ahern made to bring about peace in Northern Ireland over 10 years. Jonathan Powell Mr Powell also said the controversy over the scheme was needlessly “whipped up” and caused unnecessary distress on victims. The top official in the Labour administration expressed concern about the potential impact of the furore, claiming the peace process in Northern Ireland was “still fragile”. He continued: “I do think there is a danger if an issue like this is played with for political ends.” Mr Powell played a key role in the negotiations with Sinn Féin, in the aftermath of the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, that resulted in letters being sent out – some were even signed by him. On Monday, he said the Irish government also put pressure on Mr Blair to deal with the issue of on-the-runs as part of efforts to get the powersharing institutions at Stormont established. He told MPs the letters were much less contentious than the ultimately ill-fated bid by Mr Blair in the mid-2000s to legislate for on-the-runs who actually were wanted by the authorities in the UK – a move he conceded that would have provided those individuals with an effective amnesty. The administrative process to send letters to those not deemed wanted was thrust into public prominence in February when the prosecution of Co Donegal man John Downey for the murder of four soldiers in the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing collapsed because it emerged he had been sent one of the letters in error, when in fact police were seeking him. It triggered a storm of controversy at Stormont, with Sinn Féin’s political opponents denouncing the scheme as a secret side-deal that conferred ‘get out of jail free’ cards on terror suspects. DUP First Minister Peter Robinson went so far as to threaten to resign over the affair. I think the peace process is quite fragile, it can be destroyed if people try hard enough to do so, I hope it won’t be. Jonathan Powell In July, a judge-led review of the scheme order by Prime Minister David Cameron found that the administrative scheme was systematically flawed in operation but not unlawful in principle. Lady Justice Hallett said a “catastrophic” error had been made in the Downey case, with potential mistakes in two other instances, but she insisted the letters of assurance did not amount to amnesties. Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said the Government would no longer stand over the factual accuracy of the letters and said they were effectively worthless documents. Mr Powell said a “most unfortunate” mistake had been made by police in the Downey case. But he insisted that did not mean the scheme itself was a mistake. The former Number 10 aid also said it was important they were able to find a “balance” during their negotiations and that holding talks with “distasteful” people was often necessary to broker deals. Jonathan Powell made the comments when he was quizzed about a meeting with senior Sinn Féin figure Rita O’Hare in Dublin more than 14 years ago. You can’t have a peace agreement that’s à la carte, where you choose one bit and don’t choose the other bit – you have to balance things up and that’s what we were trying to do. Jonathan Powell Ms O’Hare, Sinn Féin’s representative to the United States, is one of the most high-profile fugitive republicans, having skipped bail to the Irish Republic in 1972 after her arrest in connection with the attempted murder of a soldier. Mr Powell told the committee he advised her not to return to Northern Ireland – which would have resulted in her arrest – because it would have been a “bad idea” and would have left “the peace process dead”. He added: “In the Good Friday Agreement, we had provisions on releasing prisoners. I find that extremely distasteful to release prisoners after only two years – people who had murdered people – but it was a necessary part of the agreement, it’s a balance of an agreement.” Committee member and former Labour minister Kate Hoey told Mr Powell that Mr Blair was being “difficult” over whether he would himself give evidence to the inquiry. Mr Powell said he would pass on the committee’s desire that he attend if he was speaking to his former boss.