Bolstered by a good number of our colleagues from Northern Ireland, the Irish AEJ met in Belfast, on Friday, March 7th. Thanks to trojan efforts from our member, Michael Fisher, we were addressed by The Rt. Hon. Theresa Villiers, MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Over lunch at Deane’s in Howard Street, she spoke, for the first time, about the British Government’s attitude towards the recent political crisis over the OTRs, alleged IRA members “on-the-run” who had, over the years, received letters from the Northern Ireland Office confirming that there was no evidence sufficient for a prosecution for previous alleged offences, and that, therefore, they were free to return to the United Kingdom. – Media interest in this speech was intense, particularly in Northern Ireland itself, but also in Britain and in the Republic of Ireland.
The Secretary of State insisted that these letters were not “get out of jail free cards”. If there ever was sufficient evidence, prosecutions would still happen. The letters did not amount to an amnesty. The last of these letters had been issued in December 2012, “and as far as this Government is concerned, the scheme is over”. She confirmed the establishment of an inquiry by a judge who would report to her by the end of May.
Ms. Villiers expressed her regrets that ministers in the Northern Ireland executive had not been informed about the OTR scheme, and added: “We need to see an end to the era of secret side deals and evasive parliamentary answers.”
On a different subject, she announced a decision by the Prime Minister by this autumn on whether tax powers should be devolved to Northern Ireland.
After her formal remarks, the Secretary of State answered questions from the floor on an off-the-record basis.
Thanking our guest, International AEJ president, Eileen Dunne, made the Secretary of State a present of a silver necklace that she had admired during a previous meeting between the two.
About a dozen AEJ members were then given a guided tour through the splendours of Belfast City Hall. Subsequently, Belfast Lord Mayor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, offered tea and coffee in his parlour. His witty and warm remarks in Irish and English sent us all away happy, but not before AEJ member Seosaimhín Ní Bheaglaoich had responded in Irish and sung a song.