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Pardon Me

One of the shocks of the last week was that when our politicians are most exercised they are least credible.

It’s is just a fact of life in the new Northern Ireland that people have switched off their interest in the passionate wrangles across the divide. Those who have stopped caring may be naive and hopelessly disengaged, or they may be the hope for the future. One thing is plain though, when Peter Robinson is spluttering, red in the face, and cold eyed Gerry Kelly is chewing a brick, many of us, perhaps most of us, cringe and look away.

One of the most surreal moments of this turbulent week was the switch of themes on the Nolan show on Wednesday night. Stephen magisterially silenced the round table raging about letters to On The Runs to introduce Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno. And a show that had started with portents of imminent political calamity ended up with the corpulent presenter break dancing on the floor.

If the two themes fitted together it could only be from the perspective that Arlene Foster duelling with the Sinn Fein appointed hit man was light entertainment too. And it was.

Arlene was on sparkling form. She has never been seen to rage so grandiloquently, with such verve and speed of riposte. A Bruno type critique of her would say, ‘You were magnificent darling, and your partner in this dance to the death was so sultry and simmering with such suppressed rage. Oh you killer, Mr Kelly. You could fell me with a look.’

This had all started with the collapse of the prosecution of John Downey of Creeslough, charged with murdering soldiers and horses in Hyde Park in 1982. Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that a letter to Mr Downey, telling him, wrongly, that he was not going to be getting his collar felt, was effectively a pardon. He said that it was more important to defend the credibility of the public servants who had signed the letter, assuring him that he was not a wanted man, than to seek justice by proceeding with the charge. And he said it so well that the prosecution declined to appeal.

This was a shock for the DUP and others.

The immediate implications seemed truly shocking, for it was revealed that 187 people had received such letters. These were people who had come forward to say that they were living away from home, out of the reach of the law, on the assumption that the police wanted to arrest them.

Now, if you or I asked the police if they wanted us for a crime, say a murder, we’d expect that to raise their suspicions about us. But if you have been an old provie, it seems more likely to trigger a compassionate response and an impulse to absolution.

The DUP came out accusing the government of lying to them and others, like former Policing Board vice chair Dennis Bradley, emerged quickly to say they had known about the scheme all along and that they understood that the DUP had too.

Peter Robinson said that he would resign if there wasn’t a full judicial inquiry. Arlene Foster over-interpreted this for Nolan as a determination to resign if the letters were not rescinded.

Sinn Fein fielded Alex Maskey and Gerry Kelly to say this was all a fuss over nothing. These letters constituted individual arrangements with the NIO. No one had the right to see them, but they weren’t pardons, as such.

The Downey letter, however, had clearly worked to the same effect as an actual pardon, making a prosecution impossible, but the answer to that was that it had been issued by mistake.

There was another telling media moment when Wendy Austin yesterday spoke to Victims Commissioner  Kathryn Stone and journalist Chris Ryder and others. She assumed this was Ms Stone’s first experience of Stormont being on the brink. The point: it is old hat to the rest of us. For years this was all Stormont did: teeter.

The difficulty for Peter Robinson this time, despite his demand for an inquiry having been met, was that few really believed the substance of his grievance.

Facebook started to throw up evidence of past knowledge of OTR compromises.

The Queen’s mercy had been extended, paradoxically,  to the killers of Captain Herbert Westmacott, fourteen years ago! And the BBC had reported it. Jail breakers Angelo Fusco, Robert Campbell, Paul Patrick Magee and Anthony Sloan were told they wouldn’t even have to complete their two year sentences. The largesse of the government towards IRA men on the run had clearly extended to actual convicts, not just suspects. And everybody knew.

But there was evidence too that other old provies got no bye-ball, like Seamus Kearney, convicted in December of killing RUC Reserve Constable John Proctor as he visited his wife and new-born son in hospital.

There is obviously no blanket pardoning; but it is equally obvious that letters of clarification function like pardons when they are read in court, if they have been mistakenly issued, that is, to someone who is being sought by the police, like John Downey.

At least we will have an explanation of all that in May. It will have to be a good one.

 

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