UK to open probe on secret deal for IRA fugitives

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Photo - Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson pauses as he speaks to the media at Stormont, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.  Robinson has welcomed the inquiry set up to look into the NI secret letters row and also said he was happy with the terms of reference for the inquiry.  He had threatened to resign over the issue of 'On the Runs' - republican paramilitary suspects who were given assurances that they were not being sought by police.  (AP Photo)
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson pauses as he speaks to the media at Stormont, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Robinson has welcomed the inquiry set up to look into the NI secret letters row and also said he was happy with the terms of reference for the inquiry. He had threatened to resign over the issue of 'On the Runs' - republican paramilitary suspects who were given assurances that they were not being sought by police. (AP Photo)
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DUBLIN (AP) — The British government announced Thursday it will appoint a judge to investigate its long-secret policy of supplying letters to Irish Republican Army fugitives promising them protection from arrest. The issue is dividing Northern Ireland's unity government. Why? The AP explains.

MAKING PEACE WITH IRA

The main branch of the Irish Republican Army, the Provisionals, killed nearly 1,800 people during a 27-year campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The Provisional IRA's 1997 cease-fire enabled its political front, Sinn Fein, to enter talks on Northern Ireland's future.

The Good Friday peace accord in 1998 put Sinn Fein on a slow path to sharing power with leaders of Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority. As part of the deal, Britain and Ireland freed hundreds of IRA prisoners by 2000; the IRA surrendered weapons in 2005; and Sinn Fein accepted police authority in 2007. In response, Protestants that year formed a coalition government with their Irish republican enemies.

ON THE RUN

All the while, Sinn Fein demanded a criminal amnesty for IRA members who were "on the run," having fled Northern Ireland decades ago to avoid arrest for shootings, bombings and prison breakouts. Most lived in the Republic of Ireland and expected the same lenient treatment as IRA members recently freed from prison.

But the Good Friday deal had no agreement on this point. Britain said it could not deliver the demand, partly because of Protestant opposition and partly because Sinn Fein refused to grant the same concession to police and British soldiers involved in Northern Ireland killings.

This debate apparently ended in 2006, when a British parliamentary bill to grant amnesty from prosecution for pre-1998 crimes was abandoned. Until this week, Northern Ireland citizens believed more than 200 IRA veterans still could not travel into the U.K. without fear of arrest for outstanding charges or investigations.

Publicly, the British government and Sinn Fein gave every impression this remained the case.

COURTROOM SURPRISE

Then a London court judgment, published Tuesday, revealed that Britain and Sinn Fein had misled everyone else — and cut a secret side deal.

The judge revealed that governments led by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, the current prime minister, had provided 187 IRA veterans with official letters vetted by police and prosecutors reassuring them that, should they return to Northern Ireland or travel to Britain, they would not be arrested for suspected involvement in IRA attacks. Those provided letters included men linked to the slaughter of Protestant civilians.

The process started in 2000 and accelerated in 2007 shortly before the Northern Ireland coalition's creation.

PROTESTANT FURY

The Protestant leader of Northern Ireland's government, Peter Robinson, described himself as "incandescent with rage," and his party would not have formed a government with Sinn Fein had it known Britain was conceding IRA amnesty on the sly. He threatened to resign as government leader Friday unless Britain agreed to open an investigation explaining who took the decision, why it was kept secret, and how it could be reversed.

If Robinson were to quit, the Northern Ireland Assembly must either be suspended or dissolved for new elections.

BRITISH RESPONSE

Cameron announced Thursday that he was giving Robinson part of his demand. He said a judge would investigate the letters program and report findings — publicly — by May.

In Belfast, Cameron's Cabinet minister for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, offered new commitments that weakened the reported value of the IRA veterans' letters.

"No recipient of such a letter should be in any doubt that if evidence emerges in the future in connection with terrorist offenses committed before the (Good Friday) agreement, they will be liable for arrest and prosecution," Villiers said in a statement.

POSTPONING A CRISIS?

A beaming Robinson, holding a copy of Villiers' statement, declared victory and said he wouldn't pull the plug on power-sharing. "If you get what you want, why on earth would you resign?" he told reporters, crowing that IRA fugitives now had "a fairly worthless piece of paper."

Sinn Fein, which also could topple the government by withdrawing, dismissed Cameron's probe as pointless and said the 187 IRA veterans "are not wanted for questioning or charge. That fact can't be changed."

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