The jigsaw piece that makes much more of the picture – Brian Rowan on the farce and pantomime of the OTR play

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Just days ago, my journalist colleague Liam Clarke produced a jigsaw piece that gives us more of the OTR picture – a much clearer view.

It takes us back to March 2002 and to comments made by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the Dail.

Commenting on the issue of on-the-run suspects and what was happening, this is what he said.

“This issue is difficult for the British Government as Members will be aware from comments made in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

“There are two options for dealing with the OTRs. There is an administrative  procedure which the British Government can follow, but it is quite lengthy.

“It involves checking each case through the administrations of justice and policing in Northern Ireland to ascertain the status of the case and whether it can be cleared.

“The other option is legislation.

“It is probably likely that the British Government will continue to use the administrative system; I do not anticipate it introducing legislation in the short-term.

“The Prime Minister Mr Blair reiterated to me in Barcelona on Saturday that it was his intention to honour his commitment irrespective of which way he chooses to deal with it.”

There you have it – in the words of Mr Ahern, more than a decade ago, the naming of a British Government administrative procedure and what it entailed.

Checks within the justice and policing systems to see which cases could be cleared.

This jigsaw piece is important because it fits with another that dates back to June 2002 – just a few months after Ahern’s Dail comments.

Then at the BBC. I reported that the high profile on-the-run Eibhlin Glenholmes case had been settled.

Two years earlier, the Northern Ireland Office had responded to a request for information, checked with the prosecuting authorities and confirmed she was no longer wanted.

A review had been conducted by the Crown Prosecution Service and, at the time, I quoted a source saying “some dozens” of cases had been settled.

Set this information alongside the reviews and investigations now happening – one being conducted by a judge and another by a committee of MPs.

The issue they should be addressing is why specific questions were not asked as, periodically, clear indicators of a process emerged.

What were the questions asked by politicians in 2002 and earlier?

What questions were not asked?

Why were they not asked?

Some might attempt to say this happened on Trimble’s watch, but it happened on many watches.

The most detailed piece of information was reported in June 2007 by the journalist Chris Thornton then at the Belfast Telegraph.

It wasn’t speculative, but precise.

The figures were provided by the Attorney General’s Office after a freedom of information request.

Thornton’s report came just weeks after Paisley and McGuinness entered government together and, again, the questions are the same.

What were the questions asked by politicians at this time?

What questions were not asked?

Why were they not asked?

No one, for one minute, is suggesting that the fine detail was out there in terms of the identities of those cases that were considered.

But there was ample information that provided an opportunity for questions at a much earlier stage.

Why were they not asked?

That’s the real question and the political narrative that nobody knew is a nonsense.

Was the Dail commentary missed, the news reports, the headlines that came with the high profile cases, all that detail in Thornton’s report, the figures in Eames/Bradley and other indicators including the publication of Royal Pardon documentation?

Is that really believable, credible, convincing?

No it is not – unless you’re a fool.

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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. John Loughran on

    Brian another highly significant contribution to the ever evolving OTR debacle.

    You have rightly argued: “Was the Dail commentary missed, the news reports, the headlines that came with the high profile cases, all that detail in Thornton’s report, the figures in Eames/Bradley and other indicators including the publication of Royal Pardon documentation? Is that really believable, credible, convincing? No it is not – unless you’re a fool.”

    Your latest instalment, informed by evidence from Bertie Ahern, simply reinforces my personal view that Unionist politicians have been literally ‘on the run’ from the issue from March 2002 – thats 12 years ago!

    As such I have two questions:

    1. The first is why do you think Unionist politicians have consciously chosen to run ‘blind’ on the OTR issue?

    2. More importantly, do you have any idea when and where will this charade end?

    • John – in peace processes on the most difficult issues it’s easier when you’ve someone else to blame. On this issue, on many occasions, there was the opportunity for politicians and parties to explore and interrogate emerging information. The questions weren’t asked, and the question is why? So, we’re now watching a pathetic political farce and it needs to be named as such. The political questions of 2014 could have been asked in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012 and they weren’t. Those who didn’t ask them need to explain why. Just read Chris Thornton’s report in the Belfast Telegraph in 2007 with all the figures. Did no one see it – read it? Were they too busy doing the crossword?

  2. Barry Fennell on

    Farce, denial, pantomime – you have hit the nail on the head Brian and like yourself I find it incredible that ‘facts’, interactions, details, knowledge, challenges, and the opportunity for questions seem to be airbrushed, overlooked or simply ignored. People knew and at the highest levels – and as part of conflict transformation it seems to be another victim of convenient denial and a topic not to be talked about. Not sure why that is but it remains an emotive, controversial and complicated issue. Those here worth their salt as politicians and wider society should not run away from this – however it will continue to run as fear and ignorance persist.

    • Barry – the information trail on this goes back to December 2000. Other significant dates are March 2001, March 2002, June 2002, July 2002, June 2007, January 2009, November 2009, April 2010, and June 2012. Just takes those dates in 2002 – Ahern tells Dail of British administrative procedure, BBC reports OTR cases settled after request to NIO for information, case review and response and, then, John Reid Secretary of State in written answer explains “any inquiries received in relation to individuals wishing to establish whether they are wanted in Northern Ireland in relation to suspected terrorist activities have been communicated to the Attorney General who has referred them to the prosecuting authorities and the police”. How many clues did politicians need? How much information did they miss? How much longer will this farce be allowed to play?

  3. The thing that needs to remembered in all this OTR ‘saga’ is that under Article 3 of the ECHR and Human Rights Act all persons have a legal right upon request to be informed if police require them for questioning – the unionist politicians knowing about the scheme, asking the right questions etc is irrelevant. When the dust settles – and the Judge will conclude the same – 200-ish people exercised their right and got a response which included a warning that if new evidence came to light they would be prosecuted…just like anyone else.

    What is playing out now is nothing more than a DUP pantomime, allowed to take the stage for a while as a bone thrown to them by Cameron in exchange for their support in the next Westminster Election.

    The DUP are that stupid they don’t even know that they have given SF another injection of marketing material on a silver platter which will see them through the next Assembly elections and probably secure Martin McGuinness the First minister’s seat.

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