Posted By: March 04, 2014

Fionnuala O’ Connor. Irish News ( Belfast). Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
IT could have been avoided, like most crises. Peter Robinson and the DUP could have
minimised the Downey case instead of inflating it. But that would have been to
confront rather than deny the outcome of The Troubles, and the situation that they,
and all the parties to the Northern conflict, inhabit now.

What did the fleeting meltdown say about those most involved? There was a strong
theme of "not on my watch." The exception was Peter Hain, who boasted that "on my
watch, on July 28 2005, the IRA declared a historic end to its war." (It also led
him to make a recommendation we'll come back to.) Easiest to start with the two
governments, notionally the bearers of heaviest responsibility for progress in both
islands, in reality keen to keep this place at arms-length. The sharpest point made
by David Cameron was that he had no wish "to unpick" decisions made before his time.

For the rest, he was dealing with a "legacy." From Dublin came denials that anyone
there knew anything, plus a dollop of distaste.

In both cases there is and was more involvement than suggested. The deal about the
On the Runs, to be discreetly allowed free passage if not on police screens as
wanted for questioning, has been operative under Cameron's watch. It came about
after strong lobbying from Dublin to give Sinn Fein something to help persuade the
IRA into declaring their war over. The DUP could have said that the "letters of
comfort" did not preclude arrest, prosecution or trial for any of these people in
the future. Robinson could have recognised the limits of the letters, played at
judiciousness, played it down. But with elections coming up,  where's the fun in

For his sins,  the party leader found he had carelessly handed the megaphone to the
ambitious Arlene Foster, who re-specified his demands even as he began his rollover.
Primarily,  the Robinson fumble funneled energy into the mockery of Jim Allister.

Without DUP defensiveness and denial where would Allister be, with his cut-down
version of the old Paisley "we're all doomed" message: no cure, no uplift.
Robinson's determination to turn Allister into a threat is a mystery. The
Traditional Voice of Ulster wants to stay in Stormont, for goodness sake. Allister
coined it in the cut-price crisis. The other unintended consequence was to remind
Sinn Fein supporters that their party leaders did make a considerable effort to take
still threatened soldiers off the battlefield with them. Contrary to several reports
the top table's ranking woman Rita O'Hare was among those left behind. But the
Adams/McGuinness determination to come as close to amnesty for the IRA as possible
leaves them open to the accusation that they cared only for themselves - and now,
another decade on, to a charge of hypocrisy for still insisting on prosecution of
British security force members.

Current fear and loathing of Sinn Fein in Fine Gael, labour and Fianna Fail has just
been topped up by yet another poll that shows SF - and Gerry Adams - making most hay
with the voters.

If ever mainstream republicans were well-placed to show generosity and imagination,
this is the moment.

Mark Durkan, former SDLP leader and their most systematic negotiator, made the point
well about SF self-centredness - in a riveting television performance where he also
pinpointed the general humbug over the OTRs: “There were things the parties decided
they needed not to know." But it was SDLP opposition to legislation that would have
amnestied killers on all sides that forced SF to oppose it too. Both parties may now
have to face into supporting the brash Hain's call for an end to prosecutions, with
all that entails in persuading the angry bereaved among their supporters. But the
wants of "victims" are as diverse as the people who accept or reject that label. In
a lively Belfast conference last saturday (feebly chaired by me) organised by the
Women's Resource and Development Agency to discover "what women think" of
"HaassO'sullivan", what was clearest was their diversity, that many felt left out,
but also baffled. The star was youthful Dr Louise Mallinder, of the UU's
transitional Justice Institute, with a jargon-free version of the proposals. It felt
mean to be the reminder that they are now shelved. But the OTRs didn't feature.