Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has defended his government's decision to give Irish Republican Army fugitives written assurances that they would not be arrested, and denied keeping the deal secret.

Blair spent two hours answering questions Tuesday from an all-party British parliamentary committee investigating his agreement with the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party. He initially refused to testify but relented after being accused of treating Parliament disrespectfully.

Several lawmakers told Blair he deliberately concealed the existence of the letters that about 200 IRA members living in the Republic of Ireland received, starting in 2000.

Blair defended the concession as necessary to secure Sinn Fein's landmark 2007 decision to support the Northern Ireland police. He accepted he had not told rival politicians or the public, but denied this amounted to secrecy.