N.Ireland leader accuses Blair over amnesty letters

LONDON - Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson accused former British prime minister Tony Blair on Friday of deliberately deceiving politicians in the province over an amnesty scheme for fugitive IRA suspects.

In an emergency debate at the devolved assembly in Belfast, Robinson vented his anger over official letters sent to fugitives assuring them that they would not face prosecution for crimes alleged during Northern Ireland's violent past.

Robinson had threatened to quit on Wednesday over the letters after one of them caused a high-profile trial to collapse, but withdrew his threat after Prime Minister David Cameron announced a judge-led inquiry.

During a heated debate on Friday, Robinson said Blair had deliberately omitted to mention the letters scheme in correspondence with the former leader of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ian Paisley.

"The answer that there were no plans to legislate and no amnesty would be introduced was a deliberate deception, a deception by omission," Robinson told lawmakers.

The DUP draws its support from the Protestant community that wants Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom, as opposed to the Catholic republicans who want to join Ireland.

Both sides fought a bloody conflict over three decades before signing peace accords in 1998, which paved the way for the current power-sharing executive between the DUP and the republican Sinn Fein.

But the question of how to deal with the past remains contentious, particularly the issue of whether those responsible for more than 3,000 unsolved murders should still be pursued.

Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister and a member of Sinn Fein, accused Robinson of whipping up the letters row for political ends and said the scheme was common knowledge.

He said the threat to resign, which could have brought down the whole administration, was "irresponsible" and condemned the emergency assembly debate as "political posturing".

Sinn Fein insists that the letters scheme did not amount to an amnesty, simply a recognition of those cases where there was no evidence to prosecute.

The row erupted on Tuesday following the collapse of the trial of John Downey, a suspect in the 1982 IRA bombing in London's Hyde Park that killed four British soldiers.

The judge dismissed the case because of an official letter Downey received while on the run in 2007, which stated that he would not face charges if he returned to the UK.

Cameron has said the letter was a "dreadful mistake" and promised the inquiry would look into why it was sent, whether it was the only error, and how the scheme operated.