On The Runs

Published Thursday, 13 March 2014
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There was always a bigger headline...

Think back more than a decade ago on the regular turmoil that characterised the developing peace and political processes.

Remember the argument that was defined within the phrase 'no guns-no government'.

It came to describe the battle over arms decommissioning and the barrier that stood in the way of an Executive being formed at Stormont.

From one day to the next, the process moved from one crisis to another.

The political institutions were up and down and, in this period, all the way through to 2007, there was never a concentrated focus on any one issue.

One day it could be arms, then the next Army demilitarisation.

In 2002 the news and headlines moved from the break-in at the Castlereagh Special Branch office, assessments linking the IRA to arms testing in Colombia and then to intelligence-gathering.

The political institutions collapsed.

And it is also in this period, going back to 2000, 2001 and 2002, that the first news reports of on-the-run (OTR) cases being settled can be found.

They covered republicans who had escaped from the Crumlin Road and the Maze prisons in 1981, 1983 and 1997.

But, probably, the most high profile case reported in this period was Eibhlin Glenholmes, once described under the heading of Britain's 'most-wanted' IRA suspect.

Eibhlin Glenholmes

She returned to Belfast in 2000, but the news of her case did not emerge until two years later, in June 2002.

I did that report, detailing not just her case but that 'some dozens' of others had been settled.

That report set out the process used in the Glenholmes case; a request for information to the Northern Ireland Office, checks with prosecuting authorities, details of a review by the Crown Prosecution Service and then a response confirming she was no longer wanted.

I didn't describe it as such at the time, but that process is the 'administrative scheme' that caused the political fallout of recent weeks and is now the focus of review and investigation.

Back in 2002, I did not report that letters were part of the process, but I have found a note from June 11 that year in which that element was described to me.

So, why did I not use that specific detail?

It clearly did not jump out at me as important.

The process of information request, the checks and reviews that were done and the response was what I considered important.

And, clearly, this had not been conducted by carrier pigeon.

Republicans were never going to take the word of those who, for decades, were part of what they would have termed the enemy system.

My report in 2002 had two elements;

One part setting out a security assessment of how IRA leaders had sanctioned weapons testing in Colombia and the second detailing those developments in the Glenholmes and other OTR cases.

There was a significant unionist response, not to the OTR element, but to what was described as "a dramatic breach" of the IRA ceasefire.

And this is an example of how things got lost in the turmoil of that period.

There was always something bigger to respond to.

Go beyond the era of David Trimble as First Minister to the negotiations leading to the agreements between Sinn Fein and the DUP in 2007.

Think back to the battles to try to achieve photographic proof of weapons being put beyond use and the earthquakes within the process at that time caused by the multi-million pounds robbery at the Northern Bank and the murder of Robert McCartney.

There was always a bigger headline; something that meant the OTR issue did not become the controversy it has until now in the wake of the recent judgement in the John Downey London case.

Indeed, in June 2007 just weeks after Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became First and Deputy First Minister, there was a detailed newspaper report on the latest OTR figures.

It covered some 194 cases with 84 settled at that time.

Two years later in 2009, the headline Eames/Bradley report gave other figures, 200 individuals had been considered.

"While the majority of these individuals are not wanted for arrest or prosecution, almost a quarter of the cases are still under review," the report read.

It meant around 150 had been settled.

And the report added: "A number of individuals have been assessed as wanted by the PSNI."

But that report is remembered for another headline; its proposal that all families who lost someone in the conflict years, including republicans and loyalists, should be paid a recognition payment of £12,000.

So, there was always that something else, another focus.

"The letter stuff was moment in time," a senior police source emphasised this week, underscoring the point that this was not an amnesty for OTRs or a guarantee for all time.

And that source had something else to say: "In peace processes all sorts of things have to be done for the greater good and trying to dismantle individual bits now is not very sensible."

The reality is that what has been done cannot be dismantled. Those letters cannot be unwritten.

And beyond this fallout and controversy, the Executive parties will have to return to the unfinished business of the peace process.

Diplomat Richard Haass has been making that point in recent days - suggesting that he and Meghan O'Sullivan may yet write their own set of proposals.

They know - as many know - that whatever the fallout from the OTRs, a structure to address the past will have to be designed and built.

© UTV News
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Brian Rowan
Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist, author and broadcaster who has reported on the major peace process developments - from ceasefires to political agreements.

Four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Journalist of the Year awards.

He is the author of four books and a regular commentator on UTV.

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