On-the-runs would have to be given chance to flee, says UK official
Comment relates to case of John Downey, who could not be prosecuted for Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings as he was wrongly told he was not wanted
A statue holding the scales of justice is seen on top of the Old Bailey. The court ruled in February that Donegal man John Downey could not be prosecuted for the 1982 bombings. Photograph: Reuters/Stephen Hird
Republicans wrongly told they were not wanted for prosecution in the North
or Britain would have to be given the opportunity to flee if it turned out the letters were given in error, a senior British official has told MPs.
In February, the central criminal court in the Old Bailey ruled that Donegal man John Downey could not be prosecuted for the 1982 Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings because he had wrongly been told that he was not wanted.
The so-called letters of comfort given to over 200 republicans including Mr Downey – who was arrested at Gatwick airport on his way to a holiday – have infuriated unionists, the SDLP and families of the 11 victims of the bombings.
Kevin McGinty, director of criminal law and deputy head of the attorney general’s office was questioned by Conservative MP Nigel Mills about what would happen if it now emerges that other people were wrongly told that they were not wanted.
“We can do two things: we can either arrest that individual and seek to prosecute him without telling him anything, which is what happened with Mr Downey, or we can tell the individual that the letter was sent by mistake and that they are wanted.
“We would have to give them some time to absent themselves, and then I think we would have to try and get them again and take the opportunity to prosecute them if we ever get them back,” he told MPs.
Meanwhile, Mr Mills asked if people who had committed terrorist crimes before 1998 now enjoyed “a free pass” if there was “evidence in your files that should have dealt with, even if that hasn’t been pulled together or hadn’t been spotted, or hadn’t been thought of”.
Replying, Mr McGinty, who submitted a detailed history on the operation of the on-the-runs scheme to MPs, said: “I think it would be difficult to succeed in the inevitable abuse of process if you are relying on the incompetence of the prosecutors or the police.”
A succession of British attorneys general had complained to the British government that the scheme was accepted “with some reluctance” – partly because the “actual and perceived impartiality” of the prosecuting authorities was “of crucial importance”.
Evidence should not be assessed in the absence of the individual concerned, while it would amount “to tipping off” an individual if they were to be told that they were, in fact, wanted by police, he said.