Scheme was wrong and shambolic, says Peter Robinson

Sinn Féin says British and Irish governments must honour commitments to deal with ‘anomaly’ of on-the-runs

John Downey: In February, Peter Robinson threatened to resign as First Minister after the on-the-runs controversy came to light with his London trial. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

John Downey: In February, Peter Robinson threatened to resign as First Minister after the on-the-runs controversy came to light with his London trial. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 01:00

It was essential that non-prosecution commitments issued to more than 180 so-called republican on-the-runs cannot now be used to avoid potential future questioning or prosecution, said First Minister Peter Robinson in responding to Lady Justice Hallett’s report.

Mr Robinson said the report which found the OTRs scheme was neither unlawful nor an amnesty exposed serious failings in how the Northern Ireland Office operates.

“I conclude very readily from my point of view that this scheme was wrong in principle and shambolic in practice,” said Mr Robinson.

‘In error’

In February Mr Robinson threatened to resign as First Minister after the OTRs controversy came to light with the collapse of the London trial of John Downey. He was suspected of involvement in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombings in which four British soldiers were killed.

He had received a letter “in error” informing him he was not wanted for any offences, a letter which was a “catastrophic mistake” by police, according to Lady Justice Hallett.

Mr Robinson observed how Lady Justice Hallett was adamant that the scheme was not an amnesty, while adding, “Of course it was a get-out-of-jail-free card for Downey.” He also expressed concern that it could be a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for two other republicans identified in her report as having received comfort letters in error.

Mr Robinson, however, made no resignation threats but rather posed the question, “What happens next?”

He said he had spoken to Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers about the matter. “She has apologised to me personally as well as publicly for the manner I and colleagues were kept in the dark. I am glad the Secretary of State is taking legal advice to ensure no else can use one of these letters as a barrier to prosecution,” he said.

Commitments

Sinn Féin policing and justice spokesman Gerry Kelly said the report demonstrated the scheme was “neither secret or illegal” and was put in place by the British government in line with commitments made by London and Dublin to address the issue.

He added: “The two governments made commitments to deal with the anomaly of the issue of the on-the-runs in the wake of the early release scheme under the Good Friday agreement. We expect the governments to live up to those political commitments.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt said the scheme was a “grubby, clandestine act of appeasement by the British government” which had “bent over backwards to please Sinn Féin”.

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said while the report confirmed the “deep flaws in the OTRs scheme” it must not “be allowed to impede political progress”.

The Alliance leader and Minister of Justice David Ford said: “I cannot undo what was done under previous Westminster governments, but what I can do is ensure that the system works properly now.”