Efforts by British and unionist politicians to to overturn a side-deal concession given to Sinn Fein during peace negotiations could backfire after it was revealed that controversial ‘letters of comfort’ given to Sinn Fein supporters may also have been given to members of the British Crown forces.
Now an inquiry set up to investigate the letters given to those ‘on the run’ (OTR) advising them they face no threat of prosecution arising out of the conflict may be extended to include members of the Crown forces. The inquiry, chaired by Lady Justice Hallett, was set up in response to unionist demands after the OTR letter scheme became public earlier this year.
Repeated refusals by the PSNI police to answer questions in relation to its former members who led inquires into two murders has prompted the unusual legal request to extend the Hallett inquiry.
Solicitor Kevin Winters of KRW Law has said he has written to both Hallett and the British parliamentary committee, also currently holding an investigation, asking can they look at the role of such letters in the apparent immunity of members of the Crown forces.
The PSNI has refused to answer questions posed by Mr Winters, who represents the families of the victims. Both cases are under investigation by Police Ombudsman Michael Maguire. Mr Winters now asked whether a former PSNI man concerned was given immunity from prosecution and has asked Hallett and the Westminster committee to examine the use of amnesties as protection for former police.
Justice Hallett is due to report by the end of this month and to make recommendations on the legalities of the scheme, determining whether any letters contained ‘errors’.
The administrative scheme was part of a peace deal originally negotiated between Sinn Fein and the former Labour administration under Tony Blair. Around 200 republicans were given letters assuring them that they were no longer wanted for questioning in relation to historical IRA activity. An additional 16 people were given royal pardons giving them full immunity from prosecution.
Outraged unionists have demanded the letters be overturned, apparently supported by the British Prime Minister David Cameron. But that campaign has placed a new focus on long-standing British attempts to conceal past events.
Earlier this year it emerged that scores of British agents and informers have also received royal pardons. British officials then claimed that the records of all those who received such pardons in the decade prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had been “lost”.
Meanwhile, British secrecy is continuing to be exposed by the courts. A judge this week expressed concern that retired members of the police are being schooled on what to say when they appear as witnesses. Justice Peter Weir spoke out after it emerged that so called “legacy information seminars” had been provided as formal training to senior RUC and PSNI staff on how to handle awkward questions at inquests.
Elsewhere, there is growing media attention over hearings involving prominent Crown agents, which are due to take place in secret this week. The British government is using notorious ‘closed material procedures’ to prevent details emerging about the illegal actions of two state agents -- Martin McGartland and the top-level IRA informer known in the media as ‘Stakeknife’ -- on the basis of ‘national security’.
At the same time, unionists criticised Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly for not attending a hearing on the OTR letters held by the Westminster committee, and claimed it was part of a Sinn Fein agenda to “dodge” the issue.
In response, Mr Kelly pointed out the committee’s members was “made up almost entirely of political opponents of Sinn Fein”.
“It is also my opinion that this investigation is being used as a mechanism by the British government and some of the local parties to delay dealing with some aspects of the legacy of the conflict and dealing with the past,” he said.
Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness pointed out his party had fully co-operated with the Hallett investigation.
“In the interests of transparency and in an attempt to minimise the damage to the peace process from a growing public controversy, Sinn Fein agreed to participate fully and willingly in the Hallett Review,” he said.
“To that end our party president Gerry Adams, Gerry Kelly and myself met with the Hallett review team earlier this week and put Sinn Fein’s position on this and other legacy issues on the record.”