Tony Blair is a consummate politician. The former lawyer and Prime Minister used to dishing out sound bites and talking up the peace process here, found himself in front of the On the Run Inquiry earlier today.
He looked uncomfortable, frustrated at times, and anxious to repeat the word “mistake”, when it came to the issue of the letter sent to the Hyde Park Bombing suspect and former IRA member John Downey – a letter which brought the “On the Run” side deal between the British Government and Sinn Fein to the fore.
Some of the committee members attempted to give Tony a grilling, others like Lady Sylvia Hermon were keen to stress their appreciation for his turning up at all. Victims sat a mere few feet away from the former Labour Leader, quietly containing their anger as Tony ducked, dived, deflected and diverted away from some questions put to him. It was an act which may have worked, but for the doggedness of Kate Hoey and Ian Paisley Junior in particular, who attempted to pin Blair down on some of the finer points.
So, what did we learn? In essence, nothing, except what has already been spun into the public domain. A web of threads which have not as yet been joined together, and which failed to be weaved by the questioners – people who failed spectacularly when it came to questioning the issue of Royal Pardons for IRA members – who failed to push further on tying down who suggested that the NIO rather than the police deal with it, and who let Mr Blair tell the committee without a hint of crossing his fingers that there had been no other “secret deals”. Blair didn’t bat an eyelid when he said not running the “scheme” would have seen Sinn Fein collapse the peace process.
That statement is simply not true. The IRA were still continuing to murder people in the years after the Good Friday Agreement, and more than a blind eye was turned. No real sanctions were imposed on Sinn Fein as a result. Sinn Fein were too deeply wedded to the financial power trip gifted to them in the form of the peace process gravy train. By 2001 they had issued their decommissioning statement, by 2005, had put all arms “beyond use”. Their first prisoners were released in 98 – and we could count on one hand how many were recalled – not because they hadn’t re involved themselves in paramilitary activity (because they had), but because someone at the NIO saw fit to ignore “internal housekeeping”. There was no danger of Sinn Fein collapsing anything which allowed their comrades to escape scrutiny while simultaneously benefiting from the boost in electoral advancement at the expense of the people who arguably negotiated most of the finer points of the agreement, the SDLP.
The issue of the Royal Pardons for IRA men and women is crucial to understanding just how wrong this particular side deal with Sinn Fein was, yet it barely got a mention at the Committee hearing today. The NIO issued letters to those who were not being sought in connection with prosecutions. In instances where people were still clearly wanted by Her Majesty’s Government, the problem was circumvented by the Queen herself pardoning her not so loyal subjects. This was no run of the mill matter. These were people who had evaded justice, and who were for the most part connect-able with their crimes. They were also key people within the republican movement. And Sinn Fein played a blinder to a British Government whose head was seduced by Gerry Adams and Martin Mc Guinness, and whose administration delivered metaphorical rough justice to victims. What a knife in the back that was, to those who had already suffered death and destruction.
Tony Blair’s answers today showed that the most important people in the conflict here – the ones who were directly affected, came bottom of the pile in the pursuit of an imperfect peace. His assertions that there were no other “side deals”, will not wash with them or anyone else. The Good Friday Agreement was built around side deals. Weston Park cemented them. Back channels in Clonard Monastery, and hugging trees in Chequers paid off for the IRA. Now Tony expects us to believe that they didn’t have a Special Branch all of their own on the Downing Street Tree.
The “Hand of History” shaking the information leaves tells us something different.