"Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, guy, t'was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England's overthrow.
By God's mercy he was catch'd
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.
And what shall we do with him?
Is that how we still do things?
An official letter is given as the reason why the trial of John Downey, alleged bomber of London's Hyde Park, failed to proceed, a letter which the current British PM, Mr Cameron, has declared was a "dreadful mistake."
The coming to light of the letter to Mr Downey has shone a spotlight on the existence of more than 180 others sent to IRA "on the runs," and that this was part of a secret deal with republican militants, done by Tony Blair's Labour Government in the period leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA decommissioning, and since. Mr Robinson's threat to bring down Northern Ireland's power-sharing Government is, he says, because successive Westminster Governments first brokered and then delivered the deal, behind the backs of the unionist participating in the same talks process as the republicans with whom the deal was struck. In the tradition of DUP leaders, he hath protested loudly.
Mr Cameron has confirmed that his own government continued the "administrative process" commenced under the previous British Government.
HOWEVER, INCREASINGLY IN THE WORLD OF POLITICS AND MEDIA REPORTING, I FIND IT DIFFICULT TO KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE. Facts can be twisted, selectively omitted, presented out of context for the purposes of those in political leadership, which may or may not serve the rest of society well. The feeling of being manipulated is increasingly common. I have no doubt that Mr Robinson was aware that there were arrangements in place to deal with Sinn Fein's often voiced concern about "on the runs." Information that this was being discussed was in the public domain. Even I was aware of it (!) and I'm just a humble member or the electorate. The issue seems to be the level of knowledge of the detail of the arrangements agreed, the letters, and their content. I can understand the grief, frustration and anger of the relatives of those killed in the Hyde Park atrocity, and no doubt many others in society, that those who could be found guilty of such crimes could avoid being held accountable - given a "get-out-of-jail-free card", as Mr Robinson has put it. However, convicted prisoners were already released early (on licence) under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and Mr Robinson and his colleagues bought into the process so this seems a consistent arrangement for OTRs. I am suspicious that something else is being engineered, and here are a couple of reasons why:
1. Mr Robinson has consistently shown a fierce desire to cling onto power. He has proven to be surprisingly tenacious in doing so, despite losing his Westminster seat and despite several scandals in which he has been engulfed. Having watched him over much of my life, I find it difficult to believe that he would resign his position over this issue. Was this an attempt to save face with his loyalist constituency (again)?
2. Northern Ireland's politicians (particularly the DUP ones!) have a history of making very loud noises, protesting against British PMs, accusing them of all sorts of betrayal. However, for some time the leverage they have had with the PM, in trying to make demands, doesn't seem that great. In a recent TV interview the Former First Minister, Ian Paisley, re-iterated that the deal that he reluctantly accepted (and which upset many of his followers) as he took up that post was the best one available to unionists from the British Government. The idea that the First Minister would set a deadline of 24 hours for the British PM to order an independent judicial enquiry, which if not met would result in the collapse of the Northern Ireland government, seems a stretch; the idea that the PM would respond and deliver his requirement (or something he thinks he can sell as similar) really pushes the bounds of credibility for me, unless..... this was a carefully choreographed process (as has been done for so many other elements in politics here), which the FM & PM agreed in advance. Perhaps the scenario of the letters coming to light was anticipated, or known of before it appeared in the media, and Mr Robinson would have to be seen to be "outraged" and it was relatively easy for the current PM to distance himself from something which a previous British government had done, and some backroom boys in his government had merely continued to "administrate."
3. The current PM has already taken it upon himself to apologise publicly for the actions of British military personnel on Bloody Sunday. There have been recent attempts to bring individual soldiers to prosecution for their actions in Derry on that occasion when unarmed protesters were shot dead, and for other incidents. Could it be that uncovering more detail of deals done with republicans for IRA actions before the Good Friday Agreement would put an obstacle in the way of further action against British soldiers in the same time period?
What would I know?
By-passing the criminal justice system does seem to me to be a shaky basis for society, and I can also empathise with the indignation of a head of government at finding civil servants from another territory acting controversially/directing controversial actions within his/her jurisdiction without his/her knowledge (if that's what happened). Still, with the release of prisoners of all paramilitary shades being very old news, alongside the miraculous acceptance by republicans of both the legitimacy of a Northern Ireland Government and the Northern Ireland Police Service, I can't say this kind of arrangement for OTRs comes as any great surprise. Maybe I'd feel differently if I knew more detail. Maybe the judicial review which Mr Cameron has agreed to today will shed significant light; maybe not.
It is frustrating for many of us in Northern Ireland to see politicians engaging in 'manufactured' scrapping in public to boost their partisan vote. Some of the issues on which they have public spats are simply ridiculous (a recent row over whether or not a room within Parliament Buildings should be renamed after Nelson Mandela springs to mind). Criminal justice is an important subject, but let's keep this in perspective - many of us in Northern Ireland weren't expecting many more terrorists in court here for offences committed in the 1980s (sure they'd just get released on licence anyway) so just how much an issue is this (historical) matter?
C'mon Mr Robinson, and all you other democrats, get on with building a shared future instead of grandstanding over issues in the past. Let's drop the pursuit of OTRs along with dropping pursuit of charges against soldiers during a conflict which thankfully is now behind us. You recently failed to take full advantage of the input from one US Ambassador, so here's another couple for you to take heed of:
"I know you know right from wrong
It don't change a thing, just the same old song
But you know I see you bring it on yourself
When I point at you, yeah, it comes back to me...
Love has something else to say
When you go on changing my mind
Now that we have found our way
When you go on changing your minds."