Sixteen years ago the Good Friday agreement ended the conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities of Northern Ireland. Since then peace has been largely upheld, a monumental achievement in a part of the world long scarred by violence. There is no reason to think the horror will return. But the province has been unsettled this week by the allegation that, in order to secure peace, the UK government secretly issued letters of immunity to dozens of republicans who were on the run for suspected terrorist offences.

To understand why this issue is politically dangerous, we must go back to the early days of the peace process. When the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998, the UK government declared that anyone jailed for paramilitary crimes would be eligible for early release. This was an important concession to the Irish Republican Army but it did not cover the many IRA suspects who remained on the run from justice and had never been prosecuted for their alleged crimes.

In 2005, Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, demanded that the amnesty be extended to these “on the runs” as a quid pro quo for the IRA’s decommissioning of all of its weapons. Tony Blair’s government responded by tabling legislation at Westminster. However, this was never enacted – in part because Sinn Féin objected to the possibility that the amnesty offered might also cover British soldiers accused of crimes.

Having failed to change the law, appeasement took a more covert route. The Police Service of Northern Ireland began examining the cases of republicans wanted in connection with terrorist offences before the 1998 agreement. If the PSNI concluded that there was insufficient evidence to enable prosecution, the suspects were given an official letter stating they did not face arrest.

All this was kept secret until the trial last week of John Downey, a republican accused of killing four British soldiers in London’s Hyde Park in 1982. The trial collapsed when he produced a letter written by the PSNI stating he would not be charged.

Peter Hain, Northern Ireland secretary in the Blair government, has defended the decision to issue such letters to 187 suspects. He says the “process was necessary”. Without it, he argued, “old and bitter enemies” would never have been reconciled.

But this cannot be the end of the matter and it is right that David Cameron, UK prime minister, has ordered an independent inquiry. This must investigate two issues.

First, it must establish the basis on which these letters were sent, and which ministers knew about it. There is no evidence that the decision to issue the letters was made public either to the UK parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is morally and legally important to establish the facts.

Second, the inquiry must establish whether similar letters were sent to loyalist paramilitaries and British soldiers. A criminal investigation is under way into the events of “Bloody Sunday”, the killing of 14 unarmed civilians by the British army at a civil rights march in Londonderry in 1972. Up to 20 soldiers still face formal questioning by police. The judge-led inquiry into “on the runs” must establish whether, in the issue of letters of immunity, equality of treatment was given to all sides.

A fragile truce exists today in Northern Ireland. Despite decades of mistrust, brave, often messy compromises have been made. Of necessity, these have involved secret negotiations. But after any conflict, a durable peace ultimately depends on the process of truth and reconciliation being open, equitable and transparent. Sixteen years after the Good Friday agreement it is vital in this instance to reveal the secret deals of the past without damaging the peace process of today.

Get alerts on Northern Ireland when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article