Panic – promises – and the political pantomime – by Brian Rowan

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The jigsaw pieces are scattered across the past decade or so – there to be found in news and headlines and other reports.

But, for some reason, no politician wanted to put the picture together; that is until now.

Read back to December 2000 and you will find the stories of the Royal prerogative of mercy being given to men who escaped from Crumlin Road Jail in 1981.

In 2010 the Belfast Telegraph published documentary proof of its use.

So, suggestions that this is new or emerging detail are just nonsense.

In March 2001 you will find news reports of other jail escapers being freed on licence.

They included Liam Averill who, dressed as a woman, escaped from the Maze in December 1997 after a Christmas party for families.

The March 2001 cases also included five men who broke out of the jail during the mass escape of September 1983.

Almost 13 years ago, I was quoted on the BBC website saying: “On the run prisoners OTRs have been a big issue for republicans in the negotiations, both at Hillsborough recently and going back to the negotiations last May (2000).

“They will undoubtedly see this as a step in the right direction.”

The detail was out there in the news. If it was missed, it was because people were not listening – not paying attention.

Other journalists and other news outlets were reporting these developments.

In an earlier report on this website, I detailed the Eibhlin Glenholmes case.

The Belfast republican was once described under the banner headlines of ‘Britain’s Most Wanted’.

In June 2002, again for the BBC, I reported the following.

That the Northern Ireland Office had responded to a request for information.

They checked with the prosecuting authorities and confirmed she was no longer wanted.

The Crown Prosecution Service had reviewed her case and concluded “there was no longer sufficient evidence to afford a realistic prospect of conviction”.

I didn’t report, and didn’t know at the time, that she had received a letter, but look at the detail of the process – a request for information to the Northern Ireland Office and then a response.

Is it not clear in that detail how the process was working or being administered?

Should we be shocked that republicans would want it in writing?



Almost twelve years ago, in that same report, I quoted a source suggesting “some dozens” of cases had already been settled.

That information has been confirmed in the emerging detail of this week – 41 cases resolved by November 2001; 61 by September 2002.

Ms Glenholmes was headline news again in June 2012 when she was appointed to the Forum for Victims and Survivors.

It was clear that her case, like many others, had long been settled.

Indeed, there were other figures reported by the journalist Chris Thornton in 2007; that the names of almost 200 people had been passed to the government by Sinn Fein throughout the previous seven years.

And back then, Thornton reported that 84 had been told they were free to return.

Another jigsaw piece is found in the Eames/Bradley Report of 2009.

The circumstance of 200 individuals had been considered in order to assess their status.

“While the majority of these individuals are not wanted for arrest or prosecution, almost a quarter of the cases are still under review,” the report stated.

“A number of individuals have been assessed as wanted by the PSNI,” it added.

Add to this the briefings at the Policing Board and other news reports and you find more of the jigsaw pieces.

Long ago, a picture could easily have been made, but it wasn’t.

That is until now when the number of cases resolved stands at 187.

No one tracked this process.

The question is why.

And, for all the developments of this week, what will really change?

We all know the answer to that question.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. Brian, that article should be nailed to the front door of Stormont and Westminster.
    Anyone claiming not to have known anything about this process either has been asleep for those years or has had a frontal lobotomy.

    • The stuff was there in headlines. Glenholmes a big name. A question was all that was needed, but wasn’t asked. Now we have the events of the past few days which we all know will change nothing. A week of high blood pressure, high pitch and high wire but, for all the talk, no high noon.

  2. Who is pardoning the Loughinisland Massacre perpetrators? Will the Mechanic get a letter..
    The fools, the fools, they have left us our Planter dead..

  3. Barry Fennell on

    Brian you are correct with your assessment in terms of timing and why ask now regarding the on-the-run scheme. There can be no doubt that people were aware of the scheme and in our volatile and fragile political arena/circus honesty, openness and transparency should be an acceptable and normal part of political interactions – the reality is that all of these principles aren’t quite there. There is an argument that the whole affair became very ugly this week because of the allegations of secrecy, and cloak and dagger dealings but let’s be honest the deal was known to some. Few were obviously privy to the actual negotiations and the manner, content and detail of this process but it’s also apparent that the Republican movement through Sinn Fein were putting in place a package with the British government. Sinn Fein secured a deal in writing enabling released prisoners to prepare the path for peace. OTRs then had a role in assisting in a strategy of outreach and assurance to those more militant and anti-agreement colleagues and comrades. So despite the political debacle, outrage and threats this week and the difficulty of swallowing this particular pill it was an area of sensitive negotiation within British colonial politics that contained nothing we otherwise would have guessed – an inherent and ignored ability to comprehend the obvious. All of the parties in their own way knew fine well about the underpinning elements of the deal and why – they just let it trundle along without the ‘tracking’ you refer to. Restoring a sense of stability and faith will be challenging after all this.

    • Barry – I believe false hopes are being raised about truth and justice. And I think the focus now should be on how to achieve the maximum information from all sides and in what process. Richard Haass tweeted yesterday that the question remains when, not if, political leaders will have to confront the agenda of flags, parades and the past. In the dithering, more damage is being done. Going back over many years, there were many clues out there about developments in the OTR process – plenty of opportunities for unionist politicians to ask questions and they didn’t. Too often politics is within the frame of panic and pantomime and on a stage in front of a very small crowd. And what are we witnessing – not healing but more hurt.

      • Barry Fennell on

        Our past, the OTRs scheme and non prosecutions should not undermine the peace and the hope for a better future here. And despite the departure from these shores of both Richard Haass and Meghan O Sullivan and their efforts – it is these that should be revisited very soon. They despite the difficulties of the topics and issues involved did produce a comprehensive compromise package to begin to work through things. Sinn Féin signed up for these. The DUP and other unionists thus far haven’t and that with everything that did go on this week on a very public stage needs to be the focus of all parties efforts for us all.

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