This is the text of the speech which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers MP delivered at a lunch in Belfast I organised last Friday on behalf of the Association of European Journalists (Irish Section). Most of the AEJ members are based in Dublin.
“It is a great pleasure to speak to the Association of European Journalists here in Belfast this afternoon and I am grateful to Eileen Dunne, Martin Allioth and Michael Fisher for their kind invitation to do so. In my remarks today I’d like to set out the government’s position in relation to the so-called ‘On the Runs’. And I’d like to highlight some of the challenges facing both the government and the executive as we work together to build a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.
As regards ‘on the runs’, I’d like to start by reiterating just how much the government appreciates the deep sense of anger felt about what has happened. For many people the judgement in the Downey case accompanied as it was by details of the scheme put in place by the last government to deal with on the runs has been a cause of considerable distress and grave concern. I recognise that the people who must be feeling that distress and concern at its most intense levels are the families of those murdered in the appalling terrorist atrocity in Hyde Park over 30 years ago who hoped that justice might at long last be done.
But this issue affects victims of terrorism more widely people, like the relatives of the Kingsmill massacre who I met last week – people who have never seen the killers of their loved ones brought to justice. Nobody who meets the victims of terrorism here in Northern Ireland can fail to be deeply moved by the pain and suffering that many of them still feel long after the events that caused their terrible loss and bereavement.
And I am very, very sorry that what’s happened in recent days will have revived painful memories for many victims, putting them through the agony of loss all over again. This controversy is a reminder to us all that in any process for dealing with the past, it is the interests of victims that must come first.
On the Runs
The arrangements for dealing with OTRs were put in place by the previous government beginning in 2000 and then accelerated after the failure of the Northern Ireland Offences Bill in 2006.
Essentially the process involved Sinn Fein submitting a list of individuals living outside the United Kingdom who believed that if they returned here to Northern Ireland or any other part of the UK that they might be wanted by the police in connection with terrorist offences committed before the 1998 Belfast Agreement. These names were then checked by the police and in some cases by the Public Prosecution Service.
If that checking process concluded that the lack of evidence available at the time meant that there was no realistic prospect of prosecution, then the individuals concerned were informed that they were no longer wanted by police in a letter signed by a Northern Ireland Office official. Yet the recipients of these letters were also made aware that should sufficient evidence subsequently emerge connecting them with terrorist offences, then they would still be liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way.
Support for the rule of law
So I want to be very clear. No one holding one of these letters should be in any doubt. They are not “get out of jail free cards”.
They will not protect you from arrest or from prosecution and if the police can gather sufficient evidence, you will be subject to all the due processes of law, just like anybody else. The letters do not amount to any immunity, exemption or amnesty something that could only ever be granted by legislation passed by Parliament.
They were statements of fact at the time regarding an individual’s status in connection with the police and prosecuting authorities. It was on that basis that when the current government took office and was made aware of these arrangements that we allowed the list of names submitted to our predecessors – by that stage coming towards its end – to continue to be checked.
In total, of the 200 or so cases considered under the scheme, 38 have been looked at since May 2010 and of these 12 received letters saying they were no longer wanted. No letters have been issued by the NIO since December 2012 and as far as this government is concerned, the scheme is over. If at any time we had been presented with a scheme that amounted to immunity, exemption or amnesty from prosecution implied or otherwise we would have stopped it immediately.
This government does not support, and has never supported, immunities, exemptions or amnesties from prosecution. That is we vigorously opposed the Northern Ireland Offences Bill in 2005, that would have introduced what amounted to an amnesty and which was abandoned in the face of widespread condemnation. We believe in the application of the rule of law and due process. And that applies across the board to anyone, including those who are in possession of a letter under the OTR scheme.
So for the avoidance of any doubt, it needs to be clearly understood by all recipients that no letters which have been issued can be relied on to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence becomes available now or later. And in the case of Mr Downey, it was the fact that the letter he was sent was factually incorrect and misleading that led the judge to rule that an abuse of process had occurred. John Downey should never have been sent a letter saying he wasn’t wanted by the police because at all times he was wanted by the Metropolitan police in relation to the Hyde Park bombing.
The Prime Minister reacted swiftly to the concerns about the scheme expressed by the First Minister, the Justice Minister and the broader public by announcing a judge-led investigation of the scheme. Its terms of reference require the inquiry to provide a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme establish whether other mistakes were made and to make recommendations.
This will be a meaningful, exacting and rigorous process to get to the truth of what happened to provide the answers for which the public are calling, and do everything possible to remove any impediments to the future operation of justice, perceived or real. I expect the judge’s report to be provided to me by the end of May. Until that time there are limits on what I can say because I do not wish to cut across the judge’s work or pre-empt his or her conclusions.
But I do want to say this. No more side deals.
As you will all here appreciate, the collapse of the Downey case and the revelations on OTRs that came with it occurred at a time when the parties in the Northern Ireland executive were discussing possible ways forward on flags, parading and the past. Both the UK and the Irish governments were very supportive of those efforts and hopeful that progress could be made.
Of course I understand that events of the past few days have caused some to question whether the discussions on the so-called Haass issues have a future. But the reality is that whatever the conclusions of the inquiries into the OTR scheme, the issues under consideration in those leaders’ meetings will still need to be dealt with.
The imperative to make progress on flags and parading remain every bit as strong as it was when the Northern Ireland Executive began this process last year. And on the past, one of the lessons of the last 10 days must surely be that more than ever we need an agreed approach and structures that can operate in a balanced and transparent way that commands public confidence.
We need to see an end the era of secret side deals and evasive parliamentary answers that too often characterised the handling of the political process here and undermined confidence in it. I regret the fact that this government did not discuss the OTR scheme with ministers in the executive, particularly when we concluded in August 2012 that anyone wanting to raise new cases should direct them to the devolved authorities. And I have made that clear both to the First Minister and the Justice Minister.
I believe that the way in which the previous government withheld the scheme from Northern Ireland’s politicians, from parliament and from the public in the aftermath of the failure of the legislation in 2005 was wrong and I welcome the apology Labour gave for that earlier this week.
Politics of delivery
Making progress on flags, parading and the past could free up the space for politicians to focus more on other issues that are critical to our future, such as rebalancing the economy, reforming the public sector and building a genuinely shared future. Because let’s face it, the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland do not wake up on a Monday morning worrying about the past, flags or parades.
While these are important matters, the priorities for most people are issues like jobs, pensions, transport, schools and hospitals and that’s where they expect their politicians to focus their energies. Today we are over half way through the second term of the second Assembly since devolution was restored in May 2007. That’s the longest period of unbroken devolved government in Northern Ireland since the closure of the Stormont Parliament in 1972. And that’s not bad when one considers the number of commentators who predicted that a coalition led by the DUP and Sinn Fein couldn’t last six months let alone more than six years.
And the executive here can cite a number of real achievements, not the least of which is its continued success in bringing foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland. This has helped make Belfast the second most popular city in the UK for FDI.
The First and deputy First Minister have also published Northern Ireland’s first ever locally agreed community relations strategy, Together: Building a United Community. But for all that the executive has proven stable and delivered in a number of areas, I believe that there is a clear public perception out there that more still needs to be done. That comes across in successive opinion polls but also in many conversations I’ve had with business people, journalists and others across Northern Ireland.
Of course I understand that a mandatory coalition that embraces 5 parties with fundamentally divergent views on constitutional, economic and social issues was never going to be easy to operate. Yet one of the central features of the 1998 settlement, as amended at St Andrews in 2006, was precisely to bring together politicians from different traditions and show that they could deliver for the good of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. And it’s crucial that we make it work. Of course the UK government as guarantor of the devolution settlement under strand one of the Belfast Agreement can encourage and help.
Making difficult choices
But Northern Ireland’s politicians also need to move beyond the issues that have dominated political debate here and recognise that difficult choices are often needed in order to deliver the services the public want and expect. So we have to press ahead with implementing the economic pact we agreed jointly last summer just before the G8.
For the government that means delivering on issues like start-up loans, access to finance and the necessary preparatory work needed to enable a decision to be made in the autumn on whether to devolve corporation tax powers. But the executive too needs to move forward on economic reform such as tackling business red tape, streamlining planning, investing in infrastructure and reforming the public sector.
We want Northern Ireland to be an even more attractive place to do business and to be able to take full advantage of the recovery that is underway as a result of our long term economic plan. And that requires difficult choices on reforming welfare so that Northern Ireland has a system that rewards work, tackles the causes of dependency, and continues to protect those in genuine need while being fair to taxpayers whose money funds the system. And difficult choices are also needed if people in Northern Ireland are to be given the same protection from organised crime as people in Great Britain now have through the work of the National Crime Agency.
In this long running debate I believe that protecting the public from serious organised crime should now be the overriding priority and that the time has therefore come for executive to press ahead on the NCA, so that it is allowed to work properly in Northern Ireland for the good of everyone who lives here.
The role of UK government in today’s Northern Ireland
I want to conclude with a word about the UK government’s role here. Of course devolution has significantly altered that role.
We are no longer responsible for the day to day delivery of public services which is now rightly the responsibility of the executive. But we do remain fully engaged. That’s why despite the deficit we have responded positively to requests from the Chief Constable for significant additional funding for the PSNI in order to combat terrorism and help keep people here safe and secure. It’s why we agreed the economic pact last May enabling us to work more closely with the executive here than any other devolved administration in the rest of the UK.
It’s why we brought the G8 Summit of world leaders here so that the eyes of the world could focus on Northern Ireland as a great place to visit and invest. It’s why we responded swiftly to the request to devolve long haul air passenger duty to help save Northern Ireland’s vital direct transatlantic link. It’s why we fulfilled our pledge to bring about a fair solution for those investors in the Presbyterian Mutual Society who were unable to access their money.
It’s why we’ve safeguarded Northern Ireland’s Assisted Area Status a key priority for the executive and a status which significantly enhances Northern Ireland’s ability attract jobs and investment. It’s why we introduced tax relief for high end film and TV production that was crucial to securing a fourth series of Game of Thrones for the Paint Hall studios in Belfast. And it’s why we’ve supported the executive by maintaining public spending here at 2% per head higher than the UK average. And all of this is underpinned by a government that is not neutral about Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.
Of course, as the agreements make clear, the consent principle is paramount and the future of Northern Ireland will only ever be determined by the people in Northern Ireland. But while the UK government might not have a vote, we do have a voice. And that voice is resoundingly for the United Kingdom with Northern Ireland playing a full and active role within it.
A United Kingdom in which we are all stronger and better together. And in carrying out our responsibilities we are mindful at all times of our duty to work on behalf of the whole community here, in helping to build a stronger economy and a shared future, and a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland for everyone.
And that’s a commitment that we’ll continue to deliver with determination and with enthusiasm. Thank you.