Posted By: March 03, 2014

Tom Kelly. Irish News ( Belfast). Monday, March 3, 2013
SINCE the Good Friday Agreement there has been a slew of books written by or about
the various protagonists involved with the evolution of our peace process. everyone
it seems had something to say about his or her part in the creation of peace in
Northern Ireland.

Certainly listening to some of the bag handlers or paper clerks of the day, one
would think they practically wrote the Good Friday Agreement.

Unfortunately being a politics addict my shelves are stacked with rows of
self-aggrandizing propaganda puff pieces filled with backslapping waffle and
selective recall.

Over the past week journalists, hacks, bloggers and politicians have been digging
out the biographies and autobiographies written about or by some of the players for
evidence of who knew what and when over the most recent piece of proverbial dung to
hit the fan at Stormont - colloquially known as 'on the runs' or 'OTRs', if you are
in the know. 'On the runs' is a bit of a misnomer as some of them are not exactly on
the run but at home.

The issue came to a head last week when one on the run walked free from a UK court.
his arrest had obviously come as a surprise as he had obtained what he thought was
at minimum a letter of comfort from the authorities that he was no longer a wanted
man in the UK. Had he not wanted to avail of cheap holiday flights via Gatwick
airport and had flown from Dublin instead, a shady little deal between successive
British governments and Sinn Fein may never have come to light.

Despite having holidayed via Gatwick several times before, the unlucky Mr Downey was
apprehended when on this occasion the computer at the airport said 'No'.

It is true that the issue of on the runs is not exactly a secret. All of the parties
involved throughout each stage of the peace process have known about it.

It was unsurprisingly a key demand of Sinn Fein - and let's be logical about it, a
legitimate demand from their perspective. Sinn Fein does not mean 'ourselves alone'
for nothing. Like the marines, Sinn Fein does not leave their fallen on the beaches.
So from a Sinn Fein point of view OTRs are simply comrades that could not be left
out in the cold when the spoils of peace are being divvied up.

So why then did everything nearly implode last week?

Well first of all, when the issue was first raised it was seen as one of those
unpalatable but necessary steps that was required to keep some of those militant
republicans on side with the Sinn Fein leadership during the peace process.

Who those people were, what their crimes were and the scale of how many were
involved was not known - well at least not to anyone but Sinn Fein, the police and
the British government of the day.

And the numbers it seems grew from a "handful" of people critical to the peace
process to 30 or 40 and now it seems close to 200.

As part of the formal inter-party negotiations OTRs was not a resolvable issue as it
became clear to unionists that it was in fact an amnesty.

So toxic was the issue that the Blair Labour government failed to secure it through
either negotiations or by legislation, but having promised it to Sinn Fein decided
to circumvent parliament, the political parties and even the Department of Justice
and dealt with it as an administrative tidy up scheme. A bit like writing your own
sick note without recourse to a doctor.

So the issue was not secret but the process and scale was.

To Sinn Fein it's all a storm in a teacup: to all other parties it's unnerving
because it was a side deal swept under the carpet. Victims groups too are rightly

Loyalist paramilitaries and former security personnel are similarly annoyed about a
form of amnesty that appears to offer assurances to republican paramilitaries but
not to them.

The Irish government is perplexed also as it offered no such scheme to
paramilitaries on the run for the murder of gardai or terrorist offences in the

Seamus Mallon once described Tony Blair as being "amoral". It's therefore not
surprising this scheme emanated from his desk.

Presciently Mallon also remarked that Blair operated as though he could buy anyone
and consequently would not hesitate to sell anyone either.

Peace it seems doesn't only come 'dropping slow' but at a price.