Northern Ireland: Executive rocked by ‘on the runs’ crisis

The past continues to haunt the present in Northern Ireland

The past continues to haunt the present in Northern Ireland. In the last week of February a major crisis rocked the Northern Ireland Executive and almost brought it crashing down.

The crisis erupted when charges against John Downey, a republican suspected of carrying out the Hyde Park bombing in London in 1982 which killed four soldiers, were dropped.

It had emerged that Downey had received a letter assuring him that he was not wanted by the authorities and it quickly became clear that 200 or so other individuals had received similar letters.

Men and women such as Downey were said to be ’on the run’ during the Troubles when they left their homes in fear of arrest and moved between ’safe houses’.

Many operated in this way for decades, often ending up outside the North, residing in the South of Ireland or the United States.

The freedom for the ’on the runs’ (OTRs) to return home and live free from the fear of arrest was a key issue for Sinn Féin during negotiations with the Blairgovernment a decade ago.

Attempts to pass legislation at Westminster to solve the issue collapsed in 2006 and a side-deal was then done between Sinn Féin and the government. The letters were issued as a result of this deal.

The ’solution’ to Northern Ireland’s problems was touted by Blair and world leaders as a blueprint for addressing the national question.

But the OTRs crisis shows once again that it represented a cover-up among party leaders desperate for power.

As soon as Downey walked free a storm of protest erupted and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign, claiming that he knew nothing about what he termed the "get out of jail free" letters.

If he had resigned the Executive would have collapsed (the Executive is in effect a mandatory coalition government of the DUP, Sinn Féin, the nationalist SDLP, the second largest unionist party the UUP, and the right-wing Alliance Party which draws support from both Catholics and Protestants). An Assembly election would have followed.

Instead, within 36 hours Robinson dropped his threat to resign, claiming that a promised British government inquiry meant that the letters were now "useless pieces of paper".

The immediate crisis has been defused but further shocks are inevitable, on the issue of the OTRs or on other issues, many relating to controversial events from the past 40 years.

The DUP are clearly open to attack from Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (a hard line split from the DUP which is opposed to unionists sharing power with Sinn Féin), and his like.

While the actual letters were issued in secret it was evident that the OTRs have been allowed to return quietly home and are often living openly.

All the evidence is that the DUP knew this and that Robinson’s bluster was an attempt to hide this reality.

The DUP is very concerned to be seen as on the side of the victims of the Troubles and fears losing votes if there is any hint that they are not.

There is real anger in the Protestant community on the issue of the OTRs. Many are incensed by what appears to be double-standards on the part of the British government – in their eyes suspected republican paramilitaries are granted an amnesty while loyalists continue to be pursued and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is examining whether charges can be brought against the soldiers who opened fire on Bloody Sunday.

Fractious atmosphere

The OTR crisis has to be seen against the background of a fractious atmosphere around the Executive table over the last year.

The main parties were never comfortable coalition partners but the almost continuous protests and violence on the streets since the flag protests (over the regularity of the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall) erupted in early December 2012 soured the atmosphere even further.

Last summer the DUP unilaterally withdrew from a plan for a peace centre at the site of the Maze Prison/Long Kesh which had previously been agreed with Sinn Féin.

Tension was high at the time, in part because of a Sinn Féin backed march to commemorate dead IRA members which went through the centre of Castlederg, a town which suffered many deaths during the course of the Troubles.

In an attempt to reach cross-party agreement, the DUP and Sinn Féin convened talks between all the main parties, chaired by US diplomat Richard Haas, on issues around flags, emblems, parades and the past.

The talks concluded in the last days of 2013, and ended in spectacular failure. The OTRs crisis has only served to accentuate existing divisions.

Day-to-day politics in Northern Ireland is often dominated by issues concerning ’the past’ and the rights of the ’victims and survivors’ of the Troubles.

The victims of the Troubles are those who suffered directly, that is, the thousands who died, the tens of thousands who were injured, and their families.

In a real sense all those who lived through the nightmare are victims, especially working class people who endured the worst of the violence.

There are heartfelt calls from all quarters for ’justice’ for ’the victims’ and these should be listened to.

The obvious problem however, is that there is a bitter argument over even simple questions such as just what justice amounts to and exactly who deserves to be termed a victim.

The plain truth is that many people will never have their pleas answered to their full satisfaction.

However, pursuing and jailing those who were involved in violence decades ago is not in any way an answer to the problems facing working class people today.

The only way to achieve justice is to ensure that we do not return to our grim past. The forces responsible for the Troubles should have no hiding place, they should be exposed.

Working class people suffered most during the Troubles and the workers’ movement has a duty to expose the crimes of the political forces which whipped up sectarianism in the past, and often continue do so, even while they call for justice for the victims.

The workers’ movement must also expose the crimes of the state – the establishment must not be allowed to avoid responsibility for the violence of state forces.

Learning the necessary lessons of the past would be a fitting memorial for those who died.

A real examination of the events of the last 40 years would lay bare, for the lie that it is, the poisonous idea that we are all somehow to blame for the Troubles.

Working class activists, primarily organised through the unions, stood against sectarianism and sectarian killings.

These activists were not responsible for the Troubles and to suggest otherwise is a travesty.


Sectarian political parties, state forces, the paramilitaries, and the ultimately the ruling class, on the other hand, are responsible and have much to answer for.

They dragged us into violence in the past and will do so again in the future unless challenged.

There is an urgent need to create an alternative, for young people in particular, other than the often heard cry that there is no alternative except to leave Northern Ireland.

Well-organised trade unions with combative left and anti-sectarian leaderships, and a mass anti-sectarian party with a socialist programme which unites Catholic and Protestant workers and young people, is the alternative we strive to create.

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March 2014