On the Runs: Secret deal hidden in plain sight

Posted By: March 01, 2014

Mark Devenport. BBC NI. February 28, 2014
The Police Service of Northern Ireland codenamed their processing of republican On
The Runs "Operation Rapid".
The same nickname could have been applied to this week's fast moving political crisis.
During a 24-hour period it looked like we were heading back to the David Trimble
era, when the former first minister's frequent resignations brought the Northern
Ireland Assembly to a shuddering halt.
Then David Cameron's swift offer of a judge led-inquiry brought Stormont back from
the brink, with Peter Robinson deciding he had got enough to withdraw his threat to
Arguments abound over whether the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) secured a victory,
or settled for less than they had demanded.
The truth
It is not the "full judicial inquiry" the first minister wanted, as the judge will
not have the power to compel unwilling witnesses to testify, nor will he or she hold
public hearings.
The critics argue it is a worthless paper exercise. However, DUP sources say the
judge's access to government files and ability to interview officials and police
officers should be enough to establish the truth.
If the first minister does not get satisfaction by the time the judge reports at the
end of May, Mr Robinson has pledged to pursue the matter further.
While republicans insist unionists knew all about what was happening to the On The
Runs, that is not strictly true.
'Invisible process'
Senior PSNI officers answered some questions posed by Northern Ireland Policing
Board members and the scheme got a glancing reference in the voluminous
Eames-Bradley report on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
But when former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Hain withdrew his
controversial On The Runs bill at Westminster, he never made a speech telling MPs
that, in the absence of a special law, he would continue with an administrative
scheme in any case.
To that extent the On the Runs were handled by "an invisible process", a quote Mr
Justice Sweeney's Downey judgement attributes to Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.
Just to confuse matters, some elements of the tale of the On The Runs appear to have
been hidden in plain sight.
Royal pardons
For example we had quite a stir this week about the mention in the Downey judgment
that the Queen had been involved through granting some republican fugitives pardons.
But if you trawl through the archive of the BBC website you can find four such
"Royal Prerogatives" openly reported 14 years ago, with a comment from the former
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson that convicted terrorists living outside
the province would not be pursued.
The truth is the peace process has been long and convoluted and items which are top
of the agenda one week appear to have less immediate resonance the next.
Sinn Féin's special advisers are a case in point.
The party appointed former IRA prisoners as ministerial aides going back to the year
2000, but the issue only captured widespread and persistent media attention when it
was revealed that one of them had been jailed for her part in the murder of
magistrate's daughter Mary Travers.
Similarly, the On the Runs might seem yet another item in a list of peace process
issues until you put a particular face - John Downey's - and a particular atrocity -
the Hyde Park bombing - to the controversy.
The County Donegal man denied murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA attack, before
his trial collapsed last week.
Paramilitary fugitives
Next week, MLAs are back to debating electricity prices and arrangements for
pavement cafes. The dust may settle, but we are not in the same place we were last
What remains of the Haass process seems irreparably damaged, while the party
leaders' trip to Washington DC this St. Patrick's Day now holds out no realistic
chance of progress.
The On the Runs judicial report, due at the end of May, could provide more clarity.
But if a list of names enter the public domain then you can expect much more
publicity about the paramilitary fugitives, as politicians and reporters try to
determine why exactly these individuals felt the need to contact the authorities to
check if they were wanted.