Too late to bolt the OTR door – by Brian Rowan

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Around the time the news of the Downey case was breaking in London on Tuesday, a victims conference in Belfast was coming to an end.

Over 200 delegates attended the day-long event discussing the vexed questions of truth, justice, acknowledgement and reparations – all part of the debate on dealing with the past.

The republican Eibhlin Glenholmes – once described under the heading of Britain’s Most Wanted IRA suspect – was present.

She is now a member of the Victims Forum.

Pre-ceasefires and before the Good Friday Agreement she had spent many years on-the-run, only returning to Belfast in 2001.

I reported on her case the following year.

The Northern Ireland Office had responded to a request for information from Sinn Fein.

A check was made with the prosecuting authorities and it was confirmed she was no longer wanted.

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

At the time, the information was not made public.

It only emerged as a result of a question I put to the NIO in 2002.

“Decisions on the prosecution of individuals are a matter for the prosecuting authorities which are independent of government,” I was told.

And there was something else said much more quietly.

That the news I was about to report on the Glenholmes case would make the handling of the OTR issue more difficult.

At the time, I quoted a source who suggested “some dozens” of cases had already been settled.

We already knew that a number of those involved prison escapers, including Liam Averill who managed to walk out of the Maze dressed as a woman in December 1997.

It followed a Christmas party for families and came to be known as the ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ escape.

So, long before Tuesday’s revelations, we knew that these controversial cases were being settled.

The question is, why the furore and fallout now?

Was there not ample opportunity in the developing process and news of these events for questions to be asked?

What we didn’t know was the exact numbers involved, and what we don’t know are the names.

Like John Downey, Eibhlin Glenholmes received a letter.

The headline Eames/Bradley report of 2009 also had a section on on-the-runs, giving numbers and an outline of progress, and yesterday we were told about briefings at the Policing Board.

Yet, we are now in political crisis.

All of this reads into a wider frame.

Also on Tuesday, the Executive party leaders and negotiators met again to try to advance the proposals in the Haass/O’Sullivan text.

These include a structure for addressing the past and, throughout the talks, unionists have argued that the route to justice will remain open.

Many, however, will now see that route leading to a dead end rather than to the courts and jail.

I spoke at that victims conference on Tuesday warning against raising expectations.

Many already accept an investigations process will deliver very little and that the avenue that might lead to further information – to more questions being answered – is the proposed Independent Commission for Information Retrieval.

In the here and now, the OTR letters will be viewed as another type of amnesty alongside the early prisoner releases, the fact that there was no forensic testing of weapons put beyond use and the information processes aimed at finding the bodies of the disappeared.

But, when the dust settles on this latest row, the questions of the conflict years will still be there and a process will be needed.

Many have argued that the past has the potential to trip up the present and, in some of the anger we are hearing expressed, that moment may well have arrived.

It is too late to reverse the OTR process – too late to bolt that stable door, and that question about questions remains:

Why were they not asked before now?

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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. As usual a great piece by Barney Rowan – and he hits the nail on the head; why now? It is becoming more apparent with every passing hour that if they did not know they should have known. There were certainly enough indicators to point to even the most naïve and depending on who you believe (and how much of what they tell us you also believe) it is now apparent that this scheme was well known. Basil McCrea now wades in to tell us that he knew all about it via the policing board when he was a member and that DUP people were present. I think what we are seeing is the beginning of a no prosecution policy for State forces emerging – not that there was ever any chance of them ever going to jail anyway – but now we will get another scheme. Some of the issues that should have been dealt with under Haass will now be dealt with by government under the guise of crisis talks – but who created the crisis and why now? All that remains is to wait on the fudge that fixes this issue and there is nothing wrong with a fudge as long as it works!

    • Francis – what we are seeing is panic politics that will change nothing. Does anyone seriously believe that these people are going to be put back on-the-run again? The real challenge is to construct the process that will properly address the past, that stops raising false hopes in terms of what investigations might deliver and that looks seriously at how maximum information is achieved from all sides and every side. It also needs to properly acknowledge the needs of those who need help. This shouldn’t be another battlefield. It’s not about politics and the petty business of winners and losers. It’s about people.

  2. Appreciate this article, Brian. I attended the victims and survivors conference, and wrote up the following article (with permission from Kathryn Stone); includes your excellent summary:

    I was jarred immediately after the conference when I listened to the radio and heard the news about the John Downey case collapse. It made me ponder whether some of those we heard from in the conference workshops, seeking justice, are chasing a fallacy. Do they not at least have a right to know that, specifically from the authorities?

  3. Sorry, and the claim that this is clearly indicated in Eames -Bradley, as Bradley has claimed, should read the actual weasel words in the Report.

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