What the Dogs in the Street Know: On the Runs and Hanging Peter Hain Out to Dry


– Colin Murray (Senior Lecturer, Newcastle Law School) colin.murray@newcastle.ac.uk

This post was first published on Human Rights in Ireland

“In Northern Ireland”, Peter Hain opined in his autobiography Outside In (pictured left), there is “always a crisis around the corner” (p.323). There is more of a feel of truth than truism to the statement, especially as the on-the-runs scandal dominated recent headlines (before being eclipsed by developments in the Crimea). I’d be surprised if a good few Irish viewers watching the BBC 2 drama miniseries 37 Days, on the slide towards the First World War, haven’t felt there is something queasily apposite in the scenes where the UK Cabinet’s attention is wrenched away from the “muddy by-ways of Fermanagh and Tyrone” and towards a developing European Crisis.

As I’ve previously highlighted on humanrights.ie, Northern Ireland has repeatedly seen victims’ interests cranked up or down depending on the aims of the political parties. As the n-the-runs scandal broke, the DUP leader Peter Robinson quivered with outrage at the injustice of “amnesties”, whilst Gerry Kelly’s television interviews stuck rigidly to the acronym “OTRs”, perhaps hoping people would lose interest in his review of the technicalities of why it was inappropriate to describe the assurances given to on-the-runs as amnesties. But in this case the DUP’s readiness to hang Peter Hain, Northern Ireland Secretary from 2005-2007, out to dry for supposed misleading of Parliament seems particularly vindictive.

Hain’s establishment of a seven-person PSNI team to evaluate whether it was possible to inform individuals linked to historic offences that they were now not wanted by police in the UK (Operation Rapid) has been firmly in the spotlight since news first broke on 25 February of the collapse of the prosecution of John Downey for his alleged role in the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing of 1982. The problem, as Mr Justice Sweeney explained, was that the PSNI investigation had not so much been Operation Rapid, but Operation Hasty (at [173](19)):

At the time of Operation Rapid’s review of the defendant’s case, [the PSNI] was aware that the defendant was wanted by the Metropolitan Police in relation to the Hyde Park bombing, but failed to pass that on to the DPP(NI).

On the strength of this review, Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions certified that Downey was not wanted in the UK. Downey’s subsequent letter from the Northern Ireland Office, informing him that he was not wanted, had seemingly not counted for much when he had been arrested at Gatwick on route to a holiday in Greece in May 2013. But Mr Justice Sweeney effectively found that Downey had a legitimate expectation that he would not be subject to arrest over the Hyde Park bombing if he came to the UK (at [173](8)):

The standard letter did not amount to an amnesty as such. However, its terms (and in particular the references to the PSNI and the Attorney General) were intended to and did make clear that it was issued in the name of the Government and that the assurances within it could be relied upon with confidence as meaning what they said, namely an unequivocal statement that the recipient was not wanted ‐ with the obvious implication from the remainder that thus the recipient would not be arrested or prosecuted unless new evidence came to light or there was a new application for extradition.

Hain’s effort at a quiet “resolution” of the on-the-runs issue, so thorny that it officially remained part of the Haass Talks agenda, was now very much in the public domain. Cold comfort that, as the judge affirmed, he could not talk account of the impact of his decision on the peace process (at [168]).

This is not the first time that the potent mix of judicial authority and conflict resolution in Northern Ireland has landed Hain in political trouble. But unlike the unfortunate passage in Outside In in which he questions Lord Justice Girvan’s impartiality and speculates over whether the judge had reached his decision over Bertha McDougall’s appointment as Victims’ Commissioner in a fit of pique at property tax reforms in Northern Ireland (p.333), at least Hain has yet to question Mr Justice Sweeney’s integrity. He has, however, been insistent that the issue was not hidden from Parliament. These claims drew a caustic response from the Alliance Party’s David Ford:

I’ve heard Peter Hain say “I have stood up in the House of Commons and said that this has to be addressed”, as if this was somehow was saying “this is how we’ve addressed it”, including the letters. So I think he needs to examine his precise background and perhaps that’s something a judge will be doing over the coming months.

Everyone seems to have jumped on the Blame-Hain Game. Even Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Ivan Lewis, has called the John Downey letter a “catastrophic error”, for which he offers an “unequivocal apology”. Just as cutting is Lewis’s air brushing of Hain out of the peace process picture in his letter to the Belfast Telegraph, expressing his pride instead in “what people like Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and Jonathan Powell … did so under the banner of a Labour Government”. Ouch.

Hain has long admitted to a love of the bargaining process, and a reluctance to let an issue sit, even where caution may be wise: “There are ministers who prefer a quiet ride and manage the in-tray without changing anything, and I never saw myself as one of those” (p.332). Perhaps it is this wheeler dealing, so useful on the ground in 2005-2007, which makes it so easy to ensnare Hain today (and why legal processes in particular have left him so uncomfortably on the spot). But this really feels like hanging the (manifest) faults of the peace process on one person’s shoulders. It wasn’t just Peter Hain, who suffered an addiction to crisis talks and back-room deals. Most of Northern Ireland’s political elite stand implicated alongside him.

And whatever temporary bounce the DUP currently see in the polls, the reckoning from this scandal may well be yet to come. Although on-the-runs play no part in Hain’s autobiography, the prominence of issues surrounding former IRA members in the run up to the St Andrews’ Agreement are plain to be seen. Discussing the suspension of Sean Kelly’s licenced release in 2005, Peter Hain claims that “DUP leaders, often uncannily well informed from within the police, knew all about it well before I did” (p.324). The scandal has all the feel of a “dogs on the street” issue in Northern Ireland. The importance of the on-the-runs issue to Sinn Féin before the St Andrews Agreement was no secret. Equally, it was evident that no arrests were being made or extraditions sought after St Andrews. The missing link did not take much effort to fill in, even had those involved had been discrete in the interim. And they haven’t. Back in 2009 Jonathan Powell set out in his account of deal-making in Northern Ireland, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, that the DUP leadership had accepted the deal and made hay from it for their own purposes:

They said they could accept the implementation of the unpopular undertakings we had made under the Joint Declaration on OTRs as long as Tony wrote to Paisley making it clear that these concessions had been agreed during David Trimble’s watch, not theirs.

This makes the DUP’s ratcheting of the tension on this issue harder to understand, whatever the short-term gains of being seen, as David Cameron put it, to be willing “to unpick or call into question all the difficult decisions that were made” in negotiating a settlement to the Troubles. Mr Justice Sweeney may have vindicated “the public interest in holding officials of the state to promises they have made in full understanding of what is involved in the bargain” (at [175]), but an inquiry will illuminate not only official actions but the approach of Northern Ireland’s politicians towards them. For if the judicial inquiry into the on-the-run letters does reveal widespread knowledge of the scheme in the higher echelons of the DUP, and gives Powell’s claims the imprimatur of judicial legitimacy, the issue will very quickly rebound upon them.

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