The British government has introduced legislation so that those ‘on the run’ (OTRs) from conflict-related prosecution since before 1998 will be able to return home and avoid prison terms.

Republicans, unionist paramilitaries and members of the British Crown forces can apply for ‘certificates of eligibility’, allowing them to be brought before a tribunal to hear their cases with the guarantee that they will be freed on licence.

It was also revealed that the review of historical cases by the PSNI police will also come under this legislation, including those cases where no charges were brought.

Meanwhile, a small number of republican Volunteers still sought in the 26 Counties in relation to the conflict will be granted an “executive pardon” by the Dublin government.

The Dublin and London governments are seeking to bring down the curtain on the conflict and achieve a low-profile closure in a number of cases.

Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy said in any conflict resolution process, there were issues like this that needed to be addressed in a sensible fashion in order to build confidence for the future.

“The British and Irish governments publicly recognised some years ago that an anomaly had arisen with the Good Friday Agreement prisoner release scheme regarding people displaced by the conflict who wished to return home.

“After the Weston Park talks in 2001 the British and Irish governments agreed to bring forward the necessary arrangements in each jurisdiction to the resolve this issue.

“The legislation published today by the British government and the announcement by the Irish government should resolve the cases of a very small number of people who wish to return home.”

However, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson said the legislation was an affront to IRA victims and an abuse of the justice system.

Under the British plans, OTRs wanted for offences before the Good Friday Agreement was signed will face a two-stage process.

They will have to apply to a certification commissioner, who will decide whether they are eligible to participate in the scheme.

However, the decision of the certification commissioner and the British Direct Ruler could be challenged through specially appointed appeals commissioners.

They will then be brought before a special tribunal, which will have the powers of a British Crown Court and carry out a trial. The defendant will not have to attend the trial.

In the event of a conviction, the person will be eligible to receive a licence guaranteeing he will not be jailed.

They will, however, emerge from the process with a criminal conviction, and anyone given a life sentence will not be jailed if he or she is deemed to pose a risk to the public.

As with prisoners released under the Good Friday Agreement, licences will be subject to suspension and could be revoked if the conditions are broken.

The process will also apply to members of the British Crown forces who are suspected of a relevant offence. It is understood that members of the PSNI cannot continue to serve if they are convicted of a criminal offence, although this does not apply to British soldiers.

The cases in the 26 Counties will be reviewed by a specially-appointed tribunal, similar to the one which ruled on releases for republican prisoners after the Good Friday Agreement.

However, the Dublin government intends that adjustment of status should be denied to the men accused of participation in the 1996 raid in County Limerick, which resulted in the death of a Garda policemen. Four IRA men convicted in the case remain in Castlereagh jail after they were uniquely denied early release.

There has been resistance among some republicans to the tribunal process as outlined by the British government.

A Belfast man currently on the run in the South yesterday said he was “disgusted” with the deal.

Stiofan MacGib was 19 when he arrested at his home in west Belfast in 1978 for membership of the IRA and possession of a weapon.

“I was neither a member of the IRA or in possession of a weapon when I was arrested just before my 20th birthday,” he said.

“For 27 years, I have had to live in the Free State for something I did not do and now Sinn Féin tells me - through the media - that I have to stand trial in a British court.

“I do not even recognise the state, never mind the court.”

Mr MacGib said he was struck by the legitimacy the deal gives to the British state and court system.

“I now have to put myself at the mercy of a British court and to do so would be to own up to the legitimacy of the British presence in the North,” he said.

“It seems like the British are happy to accept the IRA’s disbandment and decommissioning but will still assert their authority.

“How can we, as republicans, say that the British have no legitimate right to be in the North and yet expect people to attend their court?”

A Sinn Féin spokesperson said only cases where there was evidence to support a claim that an on-the-run committed an offence would have to go before a special tribunal. It has also been confirmed that republicans will not be required to attend the tribunals in person if they have legal representation.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin and the SDLP feuded after the SDLP claimed the deal allowed members of the British Crown forces to escape the consequences of war crimes.

Commenting on the legislation, SDLP leader Mark Durkan stated that his party had not been consulted on what he described as a “side deal” in which Sinn Féin had “colluded” with the British government.

“They knew when they pushed for OTR legislation that it would end up covering the state too. And that is what this legislation does. This legislation means that nobody in the police or the British Army who committed murder or other crimes will ever go to prison.

“That may not bother the British Government or Sinn Féin. It will certainly go well with Army’s secret Force Research Unit that spearheaded collusion. But it will bother victims of state planned murder. They have not been consulted about a word of this.”

Sinn Féin Assembly member Alex Maskey reacted angrily to Mr Durkan’s comments, which he said had caused great offence.

“During the long years that our party was targeted by unionist death squads controlled and directed by the British State and RUC Special Branch, the SDLP dismissed our assertions of collusion. When the families of those killed through the collusion policy lobbied Westminster the SDLP MPs ignored them. When they travelled to Stormont for a similar lobby the SDLP once again snubbed them.

“ Sinn Féin will continue to challenge the British government for the truth about their activities in our country and we will continue to support the families in their campaign for justice. The SDLP on the other hand will continue to sit in the British parliament attacking Sinn Féin and Irish Republicanism while trying to score cheap political points.”

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© 2005 Irish Republican News