Martin Galvin with a fuller version of his letter which appeared in the Irish News on 8 April 2015. Martin Galvin is a US Attorney with a long history of campaigning on behalf of Irish republicanism and the rights of nationalists in the North of Ireland.
“Britannia waives the rules” was a slogan frequently cited in justice campaigns. It was shorthand for Britain’s readiness to discard any binding pledges or legal rights they later found inconvenient. Reports that the British may prosecute six Republican recipients of written immunity certificates show this slogan still applies in the crown’s dealings with the Irish.
Terms for the release of Republican prisoners and closure for those Republicans, who the crown wanted to make prisoners for pre-1998 actions, were high on the agenda in negotiations. No less an authority than Tony Blair, the British leader in these negotiations, said the OTR issue was “absolutely critical”, “fundamental” and talks could have “collapsed” without a satisfactory settlement.
Negotiations on OTRs continued after the Belfast Agreement and were amplified in the Weston Park Accord of 2001.The British, in Paragraph 20, pledged to take such steps as were necessary to insure that prosecutions for pre-April 1998 actions against members of organizations on ceasefire were “no longer pursued”.
Administrative mechanisms were constructed to carry oral and later written immunity pledges. Top constabulary members were assigned to this agreed process. Republicans who had lived years outside the north returned home and lived openly.
No one would have trusted documents that meant only that the crown is not hunting you today but may hunt you tomorrow.
The British pocketed concessions in return then marked time until it was convenient to undercut OTR pledges. When Gerry McGeough was arrested at his vote count in 2007, campaigners said that if Britannia was allowed to waive the rules and jail him, others would surely pay the price. Seamus Kearney is paying the price in Maghaberry today. Ivor Bell is facing forty year old charges. The crown calculated that these respected Republicans would not get the full support they deserved because they were involved in political campaigns as Independent Republicans.
When John Downey was arrested, immunity certificate in hand, Republicans united. Pat Doherty and others are said to have spearheaded an angry reaction within Sinn Fein. The British accepted the setback, and then orchestrated committee hearings as a political pretext for gifting themselves a new set of rules to play by. Cameron thinks after bludgeoning through cuts in the Stormont House Agreement, he can break Blair’s OTR commitments without bother.
Meanwhile the one-sided secretive scheme of undeclared immunity or impunity for members of the British Army or constabulary who committed or colluded in sanctioned murders is unbroken.
If Britannia gets away with waiving the OTR rules, we must ask who and how many will be next? Why do the British bother if we were really getting closer to a united Ireland?