Efforts made to ensure 'republicans were not prosecuted'

Police ‘scapegoated’ over John Downey and OTRs case, says Norman Baxter

A culture existed within the Northern Ireland Office whereby republican paramilitaries were not to be prosecuted, a former senior PSNI officer has claimed.

Former det chief supt Norman Baxter – the senior investigating officer in the Omagh bombing – told the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs committee yesterday the PSNI was "scapegoated" over the collapse of the prosecution case against John Downey for alleged involvement in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombings in which four British soldiers were killed.

Mr Baxter, in giving evidence about the Downey case and the controversy over the so called on-the-runs, also claimed “there was a culture within the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that republicans were not prosecuted”.

Mr Baxter recalled a specific case when Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams allegedly tried to secure the release of two republicans suspected of the attempted murder of an off-duty UDR soldier Sammy Brush in 1981.


In March 2007, Gerry McGeough and Vincent McAnespie were arrested in connection with the attack. Mr Baxter said shortly after the arrests Mr Adams telephoned Downing Street "demanding their release".

“Downing Street rang the chief constable’s office looking for their release and I got a phone call suggesting I should release them. That, of course, in my mind is attempting to pervert the course of justice and that was conveyed back to headquarters,” he continued.

“I don’t know who the personality in Downing Street was, but as a police officer that is totally illegal and unconstitutional. We continued interviewing them and Mr McGeough was subsequently convicted and sentenced for attempted murder.”

Mr Adams responded last night, saying “it is a matter of public record that I called for the release of the two men. I also protested to the British Government. I did not ask the British Government to intervene with the PSNI.

“My protest at that time was entirely appropriate given that the British Government had given commitments to resolve the anomaly of the OTRs. Mr Baxter’s outlandish claim that the NIO was trying to avoid arresting republicans is nonsense and ignores the virtual amnesty provided to the British army and RUC for killing hundreds of citizens.”

Constitutionally correct
Mr Baxter told the committee: "The Northern Ireland Office has crossed a boundary between what was constitutionally correct. They should not have been contacting police officers to put them under pressure."

Mr Baxter also defended the PSNI against admissions by the Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers that police had made errors in failing to notify London Metropolitan Police that Downey was wanted as a suspect for the Hyde Park bombings.

Asked was the PSNI “scapegoated” over the issue he replied, “the answer to that absolutely is yes. I thought the Secretary of State’s statement was quite disgraceful in blaming the police without any due process”. He added that Mr Baggott had “reacted without knowledge” and shown “poor leadership” over Downey and the on-the-runs.

Mr Baxter described as “immoral” the on-the-runs scheme in which some 180 republicans received letters of comfort guaranteeing they would not face prosecution.

He also accused former Northern secretary Peter Hain of almost showing "great glee in supporting the person who is suspected of murdering" the soldiers at Hyde Park.

“It’s almost as if the blood of victims is crying out for justice and there’s no one to listen to them.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times