British Issued With A Keep out of Gaol Card ... to Some

John McDonagh (JM) and Sandy Boyer (SB) interview Ed Moloney, (EM) journalist, director of the Boston College tapes project and author of Voices From the Grave, about the controversy raging in Ireland over the peace process accord concerning the On-The-Runs (The OTRs). Our gratitude to TPQ's transcriber

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
19 July 2014

SB: If you've been reading Nuzhound or the Northern Ireland papers at all, the whole coverage is on what they call the On-The-Runs – the “on the run” people – OTRs - these are people who were given permission by the British government to come back to Northern Ireland and said: Don't worry. You won't be prosecuted for anything you did, any IRA activity, before 1998. You're safe. You're home. And now we want to talk to Ed Moloney, the author of A Secret History of the IRA, the definitive history of the Irish peace process.  Ed, tell us about the On-The-Runs. What was this and why was it so important to the peace process?

EM: Well, it was negotiated in the sort of latter stages of the peace process by the Blair government directly with the Sinn Féin leadership. In fact, Gerry Adams appears to have taken a personal, high-profile role in negotiations with Tony Blair and some of his staff and they put together this plan whereby selected people would have their names put forward to the British government.

And if they were approved they would then get a letter from the British government basically saying to them that they would not face prosecution for any offences that were outstanding or charges which could be brought against them. In other words, it was not a “Get Out of Gaol” card it was a “Keep Out of Gaol” card which was of considerable value. And this was all happening in the lead-up to IRA decommissioning.

IRA decommissioning had obviously been a matter of huge problems and negotiations and difficulties in the peace process and this was regarded as another “sweetener”, another effort to sweeten the pill for the Provos so that they would go down the road of decommissioning. But what is intriguing about it is: It is the dog that didn't bark in this case.

Which is why, instead of this very small, selective - I mean we're talking about two hundred or so members of the IRA who were put on to this OTR scheme - why instead did the Sinn Féin leadership not just ask for a blanket amnesty for everyone involved in The Troubles? And that would apply of course also to Loyalists.

It would have drawn a line, a very emphatic line, under The Troubles and would have avoided an awful lot of the difficulties which is now beginning to plague the peace process.

And they didn't do that. Instead they went for this selective scheme.

And it's difficult not to come to the conclusion that this was maybe put together in the way that it was as a means of managing the IRA base. In other words, you could get your name onto this list. You could return to Northern Ireland and resume life, normal life with your family. You could travel and do all sorts of other things without any fear of ending up in a position where you could be either arrested by the British police or extradited to Britain, etc.

And that was very much a gift that was in the hands of the Provo leadership. And clearly the question arises: Were they going to give this to everyone? Or were they only going to give this “Stay Out of Gaol” card to those who were professing loyalty to the strategy?

And I think one way of measuring that is to look at who didn't get this OTR card, this letter from the British government, and one of them of course was Gerry McGeough.

And when you think about it, Gerry McGeough was prosecuted for offences that were allegedly committed during the height of The Troubles. Whereas other people against whom there was also evidence, such as this character Downey whose acquittal or non-trial led to this big row, they had also lots of evidence against them but they weren't prosecuted.

In order to demonstrate that if you got on this list and you did so because you supported the leadership and you weren't going to cause problems about issues like the impending decommissioning of weapons it must also be demonstrated that if you didn't support the leadership then there was a penalty to pay.

And of course, Gerry McGeough did not support the strategy, did not support the Adams peace process and ended up in court and ended up in gaol. So that was there to demonstrate that there was another side to this.

So there is no proof that this is what the OTR system was intended to do but it does raise I think an obvious question mark about it.  Was it really quite a little clever scheme worked out between Blair and the Sinn Féin leadership as a way of managing their own potential dissidents?

SB: But Ed, this whole nice little deal seems to be falling apart. They're now saying that: We're going to go back. We're going to review all these people because there's been a big outcry, especially from Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who's of course in coalition with Sinn Féin, running the government, but he's saying: This is a terrible shock. We never knew a thing about it. And now we want to revisit all these cases.  And he's saying that it could be four years before we decide who will and will not be charged.

EM: Yes. For Peter Robinson and the Unionists to say that they didn't know about this is nonsense. Of course they knew about it. It was fairly public at the time that there was this OTR scheme underway. It was just that people like Peter Robinson and other Unionists more or less turned a blind eye to it because they knew exactly what it was: that it was part of the price for IRA decommissioning.

And I don't know whether they would have been sophisticated enough to realise that it could also be used as an “internal management tool” by the Sinn Féin leadership. But they certainly did know about it. 

But you know, we've now moved on ... It's what? Nearly ten years since the OTR thing was pushed through and you look at the political landscape in Northern Ireland at the moment and it's difficult not to conclude that the whole peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, is fraying very badly at the edges and it's clear that, as far as the Unionists are concerned, they really don't care about these things anymore.

It's also in this context: You've got to remember that the DUP grassroots, its Assembly members and its rank-and-file membership, the Paisleyite membership, which is still as hardline as they ever were, were persuaded to go into this coalition with Sinn Féin on the basis purely that it was not going to be a permanent arrangement.

It was a temporary arrangement and that as soon as it was possible to do so efforts would be made to return Northern Ireland to a form of majority rule with guarantees of fairness etc for the Nationalist population. (Incidentally, something that Unionists had proposed way back in 1970.)

And here we are in 2014 and it's still there on the table. And you know you wonder how long the coalition government of Sinn Féin and the DUP can really, honestly last because it is an artificial arrangement. You do have these two parties which are very, very different and have very little in common aside from a desire to be in government and to have the power that comes with government. 

But you know, particularly with the DUP now being sort of harassed and harangued from its right-wing edges by Jim Allister's party, which did very well in the recent elections, you wonder if all this that we're seeing - the row over the OTR stuff, the refusal to come to an arrangement or agreement on how to deal with the past etc - are the signs that the Unionists are beginning to say, well: The Provos are now toothless dogs. They can't go back to war. We have a British government which may need Unionists' support after the next election, which is full of neo-conservatives that are distinctly unsympathetic to the whole Republican and Nationalist cause, maybe this is a good time to start kicking up.

JM: Ed, the one way that Sinn Féin has been selling this is that they were great negotiators and always trying to link themselves to Nelson Mandela and the ANC. But it's so inconceivable that Nelson Mandela would organise or negotiate a treaty where he would have to beg for On-The-Runs to come back to South Africa. And then while they came back to South Africa, some of the people being prosecuted for attacks on the apartheid government from the 70's or the 80's and being charged. But this is exactly what Sinn Féin has negotiated when they were negotiating this treaty back in 1998, where some of their former members are being charged, are going to gaol and a lot of them can't come back!

EM: And also there's the prospect of more of them. I mean, we haven't seen the end of the Boston College archive saga yet and even as it stands there are people going to be charged and there has not been a squeak of protest that I can remember from any Sinn Féin figure about this happening.

Not only that but when Gerry Adams was himself arrested for the McConville “disappearance” the initial noises about withdrawing support on a partial basis for the PSNI, at least for this sort of old guard of the PSNI inasmuch as you could recognise them or differentiate between one and the other, that disappeared as soon as Adams was released from Antrim police station and the party line was that we're going to support them police come Hell or high water.

That sends two messages. One: That they're not going to resist this stuff at all. And B: That they're essentially quite happy with the policing arrangements no matter all these things that are going on which are essentially selectively punishing those who are perceived as not being “with the message”.

But nevertheless, people who were former comrades, who they went into battle with, in war with, who they fought side by side ... now it's okay to prosecute them because they're not with the programme.

That's the message that's coming out. And I wonder...that's only likely to strengthen Unionists if Unionists are minded now to sort of move more strongly in the direction of dismantling the power-sharing aspect of the Good Friday Agreement you know that's likely to have involved them rather than anything else.

SB: We've been talking to Ed Moloney, the author of A Secret History of the IRA. Ed, thank you very much.

EM: My pleasure.

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