On the Runs: Loyalist call to scrap HET police team

The HET was set up to re-examine deaths during the Troubles The HET was set up to re-examine 3,260 killings during the Troubles in Northern Ireland

A senior loyalist has called for a police team that investigates Northern Ireland Troubles murders to be scrapped due to the On the Runs controversy.

Billy McQuiston was a senior member in the loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

He said that in light of the letters sent to 187 republican suspects, no further prosecutions should be brought against loyalists in historical cases.

The cases are currently investigated by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

Start Quote

Loyalists cannot be put in prison anymore for crimes that happened 20, 30 years ago, when republicans have a get-out-of-jail-free card in their back pocket.”

End Quote Billy McQuiston Senior loyalist

The letters, which reassured the recipients that they did not face arrest or prosecution for IRA crimes, were sent as part of a secret government scheme.

'Get-out-of-jail-free'

The aim was to deal with the cases of On the Runs, including escaped republican prisoners and those who were suspected of, but never charged with or convicted, of IRA-related offences.

It was set up by the Labour government in the years following the Good Friday Agreement - the 1998 accord that led to the early release of convicted paramilitary prisoners from Northern Ireland's jails.

However, none of the letters were sent to loyalist paramilitary suspects, and unionist politicians accused the government of doing a secret deal with Sinn Féin.

McQuiston said that no loyalist has what he called a "get-out-of-jail-free card".

The former UDA member, from Belfast, served more than 12 years in prison during the Troubles

"The HET needs to go away today. Loyalists cannot be put in prison anymore for crimes that happened 20, 30 years ago, when republicans have a get-out-of-jail-free card in their back pocket," he said.

Concessions

Mr McQuiston added that there was a feeling in loyalist areas that no "level playing field" existed between republicans and loyalists in the peace process.

He said there was a perception that more concessions had been granted to republicans.

"There is a demonization now of loyalism, and loyalists are second-class citizens," he said.

Mr McQuiston said that the On The Run issue had been raised in talks running up to the Good Friday Agreement, but that loyalists blocked any moves at that stage.

'Soured'

In reaction to the claim by former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Hain, that the letters to republicans were part of the price of peace in Northern Ireland, Mr McQuiston said:

"When was this deal done? Was there not a peace process already in operation? So how is it part of a price that had to be paid for peace?"

"What you have to look at here, the On The Runs and all those deals that were done in between, all those other side deals that have been done - that wasn't in the Good Friday Agreement.

"These are side deals that have been done on the side of the Good Friday Agreement, and it has soured anything that was in any way good within the Good Friday Agreement," Mr McQuiston added.

The HET is a specialist police team which was set up in 2005 to re-examine 3,260 killings during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

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