The British government legislation introduced last week to deal with the issue of those politically displaced by the conflict the so called 'On-the-Runs' was greeted by condemnation by Unionist and British Tory politicians.
That was entirely predictable. Alongside them, and just as predictably, the SDLP used the British House of Commons as an opportunity to mount a baseless attack Sinn Féin. But less visible was the hurt caused to victims of the conflict and their families by confusing and inaccurate representations of this particular issue. For the benefit of those victims I want to clarify Sinn Féin's position on the issue of OTRs.
The Good Friday Agreement was an attempt to address, or create a means to address, all of the causes of conflict and to put in place a peaceful and democratic alternative to the violence that has afflicted this state since its inception. An inevitable and essential element of this approach was the release of political prisoners, the vast majority of whom would never have seen the inside of a prison had there not been a conflict in our country. Sinn Féin argued for and achieved this in the negotiations and the prisoners were subsequently released. As part of this we accepted, despite our deep opposition to them, that loyalist prisoners would also benefit from this approach if the organisation to which they belonged were genuine in their commitment to the peace process. British forces were not included in this scheme for the simple reason that despite their involvement in hundreds of killings and their collusion in hundreds of others, not one member of the British forces was in prison as a result of the conflict at that time. In fact, the British Secretary of State at the time, Mo Mowlam, released the British army murderers of New Lodge teenager Peter McBride to ensure this was the case.
In subsequent negotiations with the British and Irish governments, Sinn Féin raised the issue of the small number of people on the run. These are political exiles who are displaced from their families and who, if arrested and convicted, would have been eligible for release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. All of those we were aware of are Irish republicans and all are firm supporters of the peace process. The reality is that the IRA has fully accepted its role in the conflict, called a cessation in 1994 and has this year formally ended its armed campaign. The various loyalist organisations have all continued to be involved in sectarian and other violent activity. The British state has never acknowledged the full extent and nature of its role in the conflict and continues to conceal its involvement in killings and to protect the killers from exposure and prosecution.
Accordingly, there are no members of the British state forces on the run because there have been no proper investigations of these events. But not unpredictably, the British government has used the introduction of this legislation as a further protection of its agencies and agents a tacit admission that their forces were involved in illegal activities throughout this conflict.
Sinn Féin did not support, propose, discuss, or accept that members of the British state forces should be part of this process, nor did we argue for a blanket amnesty. On the contrary, we sought to ensure the scheme would not provide an amnesty to members of British state forces who carried out or were responsible for state killings or collusion and whose activities have always been covered up by the British government. The scheme published by the two governments at Weston Park in 2003 related only to OTRs and did not include members of British state forces.
Our position on collusion and state violence is clear. We support the families of the victims in their pursuit of truth and justice. The reality is that the British state has always protected members of its forces against prosecution and in the small number of unavoidable convictions, the perpetrators have enjoyed minimum prison sentences, early releases, re-admission to the British Army and subsequent promotion.
Sinn Féin has always supported the victims of state violence and collusion. Many of our party members were among those targeted, injured and killed. I have personally lost close friends and comrades. Sinn Féin continues to stand beside these families. The bare-faced dishonesty of the SDLP in claiming that we support amnesty for British killers is disgraceful. During the long years that our party was targeted by loyalist death squads directed and controlled by the British state and the RUC Special Branch, the SDLP dismissed our assertions of collusion. They supported the RUC in "the impartial exercise of their duties" and they have done nothing to support these families except when it is politically advantageous for them to do so. The SDLP's MPs ignored the victims of collusion when they lobbied MPs at Westminster. They ignored the victims of collusion who organised an information event in Stormont. Sinn Féin attended, the Alliance party attended, but not one SDLP MLA turned up to talk to the victims of collusion.
The issue of collusion and state violence is a fundamental issue. Sinn Féin will continue to confront the British government on this. The apparatus of collusion remains in place. It must be dismantled. The British continue to deny the policy of collusion exists. They must be forced to acknowledge the truth and those who operated and controlled this policy, including senior British political figures, who have always enjoyed impunity, must be held to account.
Sinn Féin will continue to face the British government down on this and the other injustices which result directly from the British partition of and presence in Ireland.
The SDLP, meanwhile, will continue to line out in Westminster alongside the DUP and the Conservative party attacking Sinn Féin while they never once raised the issue of collusion with Margaret Thatcher who was in charge of the British government at the height of the campaign of collusion against nationalists and republicans in the 1980s and early 1990s.