Ministers justified on the run scheme as ‘trying to bring peace’

Non-prosecution commitments to on the runs not immoral, civil servant tells committee

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson who is among those giving evidence to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs committee which is examining the issue of the on the runs.

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson who is among those giving evidence to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs committee which is examining the issue of the on the runs.

Mon, Jun 9, 2014, 15:32

British government ministers justified the so-called on the runs scheme for republicans on the basis that they “were trying to bring peace” to Northern Ireland, a senior civil servant told the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs committee today.

Nick Perry, now permanent secretary with the North’s Department of Justice told the Westminster select committee that the scheme where former IRA members were given letters of assurance that they did not face threat of prosecution from the authorities was lawful.

“This scheme as I understand it was not illegal. It was not unlawful,” said Mr Perry. “The law officers oversaw the operation; the independent prosecution authorities were involved in it. In trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland there were many difficult, uncomfortable issues, the early release of prisoners being the striking example of that,” he added.

Mr Perry, who at the time of the OTRs scheme worked for the Northern Ireland Office, said the scheme was not immoral.

“There may be all sorts of issues about it being distasteful but it was not unlawful and to that extent I don’t believe it was immoral,” he told the committee which is taking evidence at Stormont over today and tomorrow.

Controversy over the OTRs scheme erupted in February when the trial of Co Donegal man John Downey for the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing in which four British soldiers were killed was halted because he had mistakenly received a letter saying he did not face prosecution.

The Northern Ireland Affairs committee has been investigating the scheme for several weeks. In early May PSNI assistant chief constable Drew Harris told the committee that of the 228 republicans who benefited from the scheme, there was intelligence - as opposed to evidence - that 95 of them were implicated in 295 murders.

Mr Perry conceded when giving evidence that the controversy over the scheme had “probably” damaged public confidence in the justice system in Northern Ireland.

But when asked by British Labour MP Kate Hoey was the OTRs scheme a case of the “end justifies the means” he replied: “How you regard an issue like the OTRs or an issue like the early release of prisoners goes to how central you judge it to be to achieving a lasting political settlement and save people’s lives. I think that is the basic judgment around it.”

British ministers justified the scheme because they “were trying to bring peace”, he said.

Among those giving evidence to the committee over today and tomorrow are First Minister Peter Robinson, justice Minister David Ford, the North’s DPP Barra McGrory, QC, the North’s Attorney General John Larkin, QC, and William Frazer of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives.

Separately a private inquiry, which was ordered by British prime minister David Cameron, is being carried out by Lady Justice Heather Hallett.

Sinn Fein has made written submissions to the Northern Ireland Affairs committee but refused to give public evidence to it.

Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness said that he, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and justice spokesman Gerry Kelly last week spoke to the Hallett inquiry and saw “no point” in asking Mr Kelly to address the Westminster committee.

The chairman of the select committee Laurence Robertson said he was surprised and disappointed at Sinn Fein’s position. “I will be writing to Mr Kelly asking some further questions about his and Sinn Fein’s evidence, and contesting some of his assertions,” he said.

DUP MP David Simpson, who is on the select committee, criticised the Sinn Fein decision, and said: “Sinn Fein’s approach to this inquiry speaks volumes about their attitude to truth recovery when this is the approach they take to telling the truth about this corrupt scheme. There seems to be a reluctance to be cross-examined in public about the matter.”