Blair defends IRA letters as vital for NIreland peace

13th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

Former British prime minister Tony Blair apologised Tuesday for failings that led to an IRA bomb suspect walking free, but insisted peace could not have been achieved in Northern Ireland without it.

John Downey is believed to have carried out a 1982 attack in London's Hyde Park that killed four cavalry soldiers but his trial collapsed last year after it emerged prosecutors had sent him a letter guaranteeing he would never face trial.

The letter was one of 228 sent out to militants as part of negotiations to keep the peace in Northern Ireland.

Giving evidence to the parliamentary committee investigating the scheme, Blair said that only people deemed by prosecutors to have a lack of evidence against them were meant to have received the letters.

Downey received the letter despite there being an arrest warrant outstanding against him and was eventually detained in 2013.

Blair apologised to the victims' families for the "misapplication of the scheme" that led to Downey being freed.

"In hindsight, this thing that began as a few cases would have been better being pulled into a proper scheme," he told the Northern Ireland Affairs committee.

"I apologise to the people who have suffered as a result of that."

But Blair defended the policy in the face of heavy criticism from committee members over whether it was actually vital to the negotiations.

"I do not apologise for the policy of people being informed. Without this issue, we would not have had a Northern Ireland peace process," he insisted.

"I can't prove I'm right but you can't prove I'm wrong."

Blair, who was prime minister between 1997 and 2007, argued that the republican party Sinn Fein would have walked away from the talks.

In a sometimes heated session, unionist lawmaker Ian Paisley, son of the late firebrand protestant leader who shared the same name, said that letters were sent to 95 people linked to 300 terrorist murders between them.

As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence, anyone convicted of paramilitary crimes was eligible for early release.

Starting in 2001, British authorities also began giving IRA militants assurances that they would not face prosecution if groups were supportive the peace process.

© 2015 AFP

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