Unionists lead opposition to 'on-the-run' legislation

  • 9 November 2005
  • test

Unionists will have to accept they are powerless to stop the British Government introducing legislation allowing IRA 'On-The-Runs' (OTRs) to return to Northern Ireland, David McNarry has said.

David McNarry, an Ulster Unionist MLA who was a key adviser to David Trimble, says it is clear the British Government has the majority to push through the legislation when it goes before Westminster later this month.

He was speaking after the DUP said it would band together with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour backbenchers to vote down the proposal.

The legislation has sparked fury amongst unionists, who argue that allowing dozens of IRA fugitives to return to Northern Ireland without fear of prosecution is an insult to IRA victims and sets a dangerous legal precedent.

On Wednesday a victims delegation headed by DUP MLA, Arlene Foster, visited Westminster to lobby support for their position.

The return of the 'OTR's' is a key demand by republicans and was instrumental in securing the decommissioning of IRA weapons in September.

"This is something that Unionists find totally unacceptable, it is repugnant to most people," said David McNarry.

"However unionists have to accept that if the government wishes it to go through, it will go through.

"There has been talk of Conservative support for the Unionist position but experience shows that support is often not there when it comes to voting.

"I think it should potentially be a deal breaker, but it doesn't seem to be viewed that way by the DUP."

Unionist sources have also hinted at the possibility of pushing the British government to provide an amnesty for former and serving members of the police and British Army who may be implicated in collusion inquiries.

Unionists have accused the Irish government of "gross hypocrisy" for its failure to allow two men accused of involvement in the murder of Garda Gerry McCabe in 1996 to return to Ireland.

The return of OTR's is more symbolic than practical, since none of those included in the legislation would face a prison sentence because of the early release scheme provided for by the Good Friday Agreement.

However for republicans to sell the idea of decommissioning it was vital that IRA members be told their former comrades could return to Northern Ireland as free men and women.

Amongst those who would be allowed to return is Sinn Féin's former Washington spokesperson, Rita O'Hare, who is wanted in connection with attacks on the British Army in north Belfast in the mid-1970s.

Liam Averill, an IRA prisoner who escaped from the Maze prison dressed as a woman in the mid-1990s, would also be allowed to return.

The numbers involved are small, believed to be no more than two dozen, while most of the offences took place more than 20 years ago.

Sinn Féin says the OTR legislation is a matter for the British Government, and one which it expects to be solved "sooner rather than later"'.

Republicans have also contrasted the Unionist response to OTR's with their reaction to the early release of loyalist and republican prisoners which took place between 1998 and 2000.

Although the DUP opposed the releases one of their spokespeople in Ballymoney is a former UDA gunman who was released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.