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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 18:29 GMT
Blair faces 'bumpy ride' over fugitive plan
Gareth Gordon
By Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

To the government, the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill promises an end to one of the most contentious unresolved issues of the Troubles - what to do about terrorist suspects on-the-run?

To many others - chiefly the victims who may now see those who murdered or maimed their loved ones allowed to return home without serving a single day in prison - it looks and feels like an amnesty.

Tony Blair hopes the law will resolve the issue of on-the-runs

Even someone convicted of a crime as heinous as, for example, the Enniskillen bombing of 1987, in which 11 innocent people died, will not have to spend a single day in prison.

But while for some justice itself is now in the dock - even though those suspected of terrorist crimes won't be joining it - the question of the so-called "OTRs" won't ultimately hinder the restoration of a Stormont Assembly in the future.

There will undoubtedly be amendments sought to this most controversial piece of legislation, particularly by those who want the system "time limited".

But while the government faces a bumpy ride - especially in the House of Lords - opponents can only realistically hope to slow its introduction, not stop it.

For all the opposition from unionists, SDLP, Alliance, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the issue has been dwarfed nationally by government attempts - and subsequent failure - to introduce powers to allow police in Britain to hold terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge.

Once again the government is accused of being tough on terror elsewhere but pandering to it in Northern Ireland.

But it is a charge ministers have faced before.

Terror suspects could return to NI under the new proposals

And the fact that the bill covers misdemeanours by security force personnel means the government also avoids the potential embarrassment of policemen or soldiers convicted of offences ever being jailed.

The government promised to allow paramilitary fugitives from justice to return home back in April 2003 during talks with Sinn Fein.

But it held the introduction of the move back until the IRA called off its campaign and disarmed.

Those covered by the legislation - and just how many there are is open to doubt - can now apply to a certification commissioner.

The resulting certificate will grant them exemption from arrest, questioning and being remanded in custody while they wait for their cases to be heard by a retired judge at what is called a special tribunal.

Officials say it will have all the powers and status of a Crown Court. Except one - the power to send someone to jail.

Freed on licence

And while there will be a prosecutor, journalists to cover the proceedings, and members of the public including, perhaps, victims in the public gallery, there need not be any defendants for them to "eyeball".

Defendants will not have to attend.

If convicted, they will be sentenced, but immediately freed on licence - provided they comply with a series of conditions.

But no-one will be spending even an hour in jail.

How many such tribunals will be held no-one knows. Nor do we know how much this system of justice without "end product" will cost.

We do know that 30m has been set aside already to allow the police to investigate some of the 1,800 killings which remain unsolved over the 30 years of the Troubles.

And while the time period covered by the OTR legislation will not be indefinite, the secretary of state will not bring it to an end until the cold case review is over - in case it results in any fresh convictions.

Quite when that will be no-one knows.

By then the OTRs will be home or free to return home; the politicians will have said their piece; and many victims will feel that justice has failed them again; but the political face of Northern Ireland could be very different.

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