Arrest of Hyde Park suspect took SF and British security forces by surprise

Attempt to prosecute John Downey caused confusion over his status

Dead horses lie covered adjacent to wrecked cars at the scene of an IRA car bombing when the Household Cavalry was passing, in Hyde Park, London, in 1982. Photograph: PA

Dead horses lie covered adjacent to wrecked cars at the scene of an IRA car bombing when the Household Cavalry was passing, in Hyde Park, London, in 1982. Photograph: PA

Wed, Feb 26, 2014, 01:00

John Downey had no more reasons for concern than any other airline passenger as he was on his way to catch a connecting flight to Greece at Gatwick Airport on a Sunday afternoon last May.

Moments later, however, he was stopped by police. A check was made on the police computer against his name, which declared he was suspected of having been one of the IRA team that set off a 25lb car bomb in Hyde Park in 1982.

The bomb, wrapped with nails and placed inside a Morris Marina, had killed four of 16 Blues and Royals military horsemen as they passed on their way to Buckingham Palace. Seven horses were killed, or had to be put down.

Downey’s arrest caused days of confusion and consternation, since he had been one of nearly 200 IRA so-called On the Runs told in 2007 that they were no longer wanted for prosecution.

Letters of comfort
In a statement to Mr Justice Sweeney in the Old Bailey, who heard Downey’s challenge to the bid to prosecute him, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said the letters of comfort had been “essential” to the peace process.

Sinn Féin scented conspiracy in the days after Downey’s arrest, talking darkly about forces in the British establishment.

The 2007 letter of comfort had given Downey confidence to travel to Britain and Northern Ireland from his Donegal home repeatedly.

In 2010, he travelled three times to Britain, in February, March and April. In 2011, he went twice, in April and November. In January 2013 he went again – “all without incident”, Mr Justice Sweeney noted.

In 2012 he attended Sinn Féin’s hunger strike commemorations in Dungiven, Co Derry, while he twice went to Corrymeela Peace Centre meetings in Belfast.

Privately, however, British security forces were equally taken aback by Downey’s arrest, which came on the back of a 20-year-old record in the police computer, rather than because of any new interest in him.

Instead, the PSNI had said in 2007 that Downey was not wanted for prosecution, but, for inexplicable reasons, they had failed to warn him that he was still wanted by the Metropolitan Police for the Hyde Park bombing.

Matched a photofit
Downey had quickly been suspected for that bombing, particularly because he matched a photofit prepared by witness, Mark Chrusciel, who had spotted the IRA men as they prepared days before.

Some of his fingerprints were found on two parking tickets given out when the Marina was parked in London; first in Portman Square and then in Kensington two days before the bombing.

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