EYES SHUT TIGHT – Brian Rowan on how a mountain of OTR information was missed

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In peace processes across the world there will be things that all sides won’t want to know but, here, there is no credible explanation for not knowing something about the OTR or on-the-run process.

On this one, deniability is anything but plausible.

You find the roots of this story more than 13 years ago in news reports between Christmas 2000 and New Year 2001- that is if you want to look and see.

So, in this detailed piece of research written for the eamonnmallie.com website, I will set out what was there before our eyes.

It will show that long after detailed information was reported on specific and high-profile on-the-run cases, unionists – the DUP and UUP – were still playing a kind of political blame game.

You find an example of this in a statement issued in Peter Robinson’s name in May 2004.

This came after a report by the BBC that as part of a planned political deal and arranged sequence of statements and actions the previous October, the IRA killers of Garda Jerry McCabe were to be freed from Caslerea Jail in the republic.


Peter Robinson statement May 7 2004


Included in the statement from Robinson were these sentences: “It’s high time that David Trimble came clean.

“What other dastardly deals did you do last October David, and how much worse is this deal going to get in terms of demilitarisation, on-the-run amnesties, policing, human rights and equality?”

Trimble said he knew nothing of the side deal to release the killers of Garda McCabe but, in this period, we find a pattern of blame Trimble.

The political process was moving beyond him and his party with the governments now exploring a potential Sinn Fein/DUP deal.

And, in June 2004, I noted the following in a conversation with a senior DUP figure.

OTRs/demil (meaning demilitarisation) etc “It’s Trimble’s mistake, not ours.”

At the time, I weaved that thought into an analysis piece published by the BBC.


Extract from BBC report June 29 2004


“The DUP will oppose any scaling down of security and any move to settle the controversial issue of on-the-runs.

“But it will no doubt argue that these were mistakes made by others in past negotiations.

“In other words, these things were not conceded on the DUP’s watch.”

Months later, Robinson said the DUP would not be held responsible for the results of a weak Ulster Unionist Party, and this is the type of Trimble blame-game narrative described by Tony Blair’s former chief-of-staff in his book ‘Great Hatred, Little Room’ some four years later in 2008.


Newsletter report Dec 2004



So, should we be shocked that plans to settle the on-the-run cases were part of that planned October 2003 political sequence?

The answer is no and for this reason.


Extract from Gerry Adams Statement May 11 2004


Here is a paragraph from a Gerry Adams statement dated May 11 2004: ” Last October there was an agreed sequence of statements and actions which would have seen the Good Friday Agreement institutions back in place and a process to resolve a number of issues, for example arms and armed groups, Justice and Human Rights, demilitarisation, people on the run and other matters including the release of the Castlerea prisoners.”

That planned sequence in October 2003 described by Adams in that statement a few months later is remembered because it was dramatically halted by Trimble – stalled because of a lack of detail on IRA decommissioning.

But, long before this point, a number of high profile on-the-run cases had been settled.

– December 2000, involving republicans who escaped from Crumlin Road Jail in 1981;

– March 2001, involving men who escaped from Maze/Long Kesh in 1983 and 1997;

– June 2002, reports by the BBC across radio, television and online detailing that the Eibhlin Glenholmes case as well as ‘some dozens’ of others had already been settled.

These reports in June 2002 are significant because they describe the process – a request for information to the NIO, checks with prosecuting authorities, case review and response.

It is what today is being described as the ‘administrative scheme’.

Read forward several years to June 2007 and a report by the journalist Chris Thornton for the Belfast Telegraph just weeks after Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became First and Deputy First Ministers.

Thornton’s report is packed with detail and figures – statistics released by the Attorney General’s Office under the Freedom of Information Act.

It reports a total of 194 cases.

One fugitive had been captured, stood trial and was cleared.

– 84 cases were settled.

– 75 remained wanted (as follows)

– 8 wanted for return to prison;

– 46 wanted for questioning by police;

– 21 wanted to face trial.

At the time, 34 cases were still being reviewed .

Almost seven years ago, this was reported information – there to be seen and questioned if anyone was looking and if anyone was interested, but eyes seem to have been shut tight.

Two years later, the Eames/Bradley report updated the figures – that around three quarters of 200 cases had been settled.

In 2010, the Belfast Telegraph published the Queen’s Pardon document used to settle a number of cases many years earlier and, in 2012, under front page banner headlines, the same newspaper reported that Eibhlin Glenholmes had been appointed to the Forum for Victims and Survivors.


Eibhlin Glenholmes seated at meeting of Forum for Victims and Survivors


Put the jigsaw of information pieces together and ask is it credible, plausible, believable that all of this was missed in a place that has shown itself capable in recent days of being shocked by the trivial.

The answer is no.

In the wake of the collapse of the John Downey case in London, what we are watching is a political sham fight.

What has happened over the past near-14 years cannot be unwritten or undone.

It happened on everyone’s watch but, apparently, when no one was looking.

Hard to believe?


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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 www.merrionpress.ie


  1. Brian,

    “In the wake of the collapse of the John Downey case in London, what we are watching is a political sham fight.”

    In my view the most significant thing about the Downey case is Mr Justice Sweeney’s detailed judgement. This passage in particular tells us a few things we didn’t previously know:

    “A second phase of negotiations began in July 1998. It was during those negotiations that the position of the OTRs was addressed.

    “Sinn Fein argued, inter alia, that given the fact that many of the cases were very old, and given the introduction of the early release scheme by the 1998 Act, the position of the OTRs was anomalous.

    “The more so, it was said, as a number of the OTRs were strong supporters of the Good Friday Agreement, whose presence in Northern Ireland, free from the risk of arrest, would further the peace process.

    “Thus Sinn Fein wanted the Government to find a way to enable OTRs to return to, or to go to, Northern Ireland free from the risk of arrest / prosecution (including, where necessary, the dropping of outstanding extradition requests), and free from any adverse consequence flowing from arrest.

    “Sinn Fein made clear that it regarded a successful outcome in relation to OTRs as being of critical importance to the eventual success of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein’s position was broadly supported by the Irish Government.”

    I wouldn’t call it a sham fight so much as a ‘phoney war’. Robinson’s judge led inquiry does not have a lot of teeth. The NI Affairs Select Committee however does. And it also has considerable motivation to discover what this deal amounted to.

    It will want to determine whether or not in setting up the mechanism by which these letters of comfort were drawn up and delivered Peter Hain was undermining Parliament’s decision against passing the proposed legislative ‘fix’.

    The revelation of the actual negotiating position of SF (ie a blanket amnesty for former combatants) must raise uncomfortable questions with the victims groups they’ve been working with.

    Not least because we know from the failure of the NI Offences Bill that there was no prospect of a successful outcome in the terms outlined above without a clear understanding that for any such arrangement to be effective its ‘provisions’ would have to cut both ways.

    We’ll have to await the select committee’s report before we get a clear answer on that. But I don’t think there is going to be an easy way back to the status quo ante.

    • Morning Mick and thanks for your thoughts. I’d make a number of points. This was happening long before Hain’s time. The Glenholmes case was settled in 2000 in a process that involved a request for information to the NIO, checks with prosecuting authorities, case review and response that she was no longer wanted. This didn’t emerge until two years later when the BBC reported her case along with some dozens of others. When I checked my original notes, I had been told about the letters but I didn’t report that specific detail at the time. I obviously didn’t consider it significant in the overall methodology of the process. The process reported back then, although not described as such at the time, is what we are now calling the administrative scheme.Before then jail escaper cases had been settled and reported across a number of news outlets. Other significant detail became public at different times – 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012. This is why I consider much of today’s political play to be a sham fight. The questions could have been asked long before now. These ‘not wanted’ cases clearly didn’t need legislation to be processed. The legislation was needed for ‘still wanted’ cases and the idea of a Special Tribunal approach dates back to 2003 and was out there as part of the planned sequence in October that year to restore devolution. Its detail included that even in cases in which people were deemed guilty there would be no jail time. You’ll remember that sequence was dramatically halted by Trimble because of lack of detail on decommissioning.

      • Thanks Brian. One thing is lodged in my memory – though I’ve nothing concrete on it, probably it was before I set Slugger up: was there an understanding somewhere that the decommissioning process was to be completed by the time this correspondence took place in May 2000?

        • Mick – May 2000 was the original decommissioning target date. The OTR developments are beyond that date. Special Tribunal idea emerges later and in context of other developments 2003.

          • Intriguing.

            If we accept that Mr Justice Sweeney had full and complete access to all relevant government documentation the first mention of OTRs comes in a private and unrecorded communication from Sinn Fein to Tony Blair, just as the target date for IRA decommissioning expires?

            Is there any material in the public domain that can tell us why the clock ran down on IRA decommissioning without delivery?

            By the way I completely agree that British actions on these matters were actioned almost immediately. These, I’d guess, were the low hanging fruit.

            It doesn’t explain Tony Blair’s attempt to scale up the arrangements for dealing with OTRs by getting them onto the statute book.

            And then of course there’s the speeding of the process under the aptly named Operation Rapid, which only appears after the attempt to legislate fails and the Assembly is back in business.

            Lots for the select committee to get its teeth into…

          • I think the question for politicians is why they didn’t ask these questions long before now. The emerging figures over the years provided evidence of a scheme/process. So question should have been what is the process not is there a process. I’m just amazed that in a place of instant reactions and knee-jerks it took all this time for people to realise something was going on. Really?

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