Comfort letters: Kelly confident no top party figure applied

MLA for North Belfast says NI investigating committee’s report ‘politically driven’ attack

Gerry Kelly MLA North Belfast: Northern Ireland Affairs Committee “comprised politicians all of whom oppose Sinn Féin”. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Gerry Kelly MLA North Belfast: Northern Ireland Affairs Committee “comprised politicians all of whom oppose Sinn Féin”. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

 

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly, who handled the requests for letters of comfort by republicans stating that they were not wanted for prosecution, has said that he is “fairly confident” no senior party figure had applied for one.

Democratic Unionist Party MP David Simpson earlier accused Mr Kelly and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of insulting families of the victims of the Troubles because they had not “had the guts to come and give evidence” to the House of Commons inquiry.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee had considered issuing a summons to Mr Kelly – who gave evidence privately to last year’s Hallett inquiry into the On The Runs (OTRs) issue – but decided against, believing that Sinn Féin would seek to make political capital by defying it.

Rejecting the report, Mr Kelly said it was a “politically driven” attack on Sinn Féin produced by a “committee of politicians all of whom oppose Sinn Féin” and its findings would be turned “into a witch-hunt against republicans”.

Senior politicians in the two main Unionist parties and the SDLP should or must have known the OTRs scheme was in operation. “To say that they did not know what was going on is a falsehood,” said Mr Kelly.

Meanwhile, Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable George Hamilton apologised “unreservedly” for his force’s handling of the letters, but also made clear that spending cuts are restricting his ability to investigate old crimes.

Questioning

John Downey, who had been accused of the murders of four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing, was mistakenly given a letter saying he was not wanted by the police, when the Metropolitan Police still wanted to question him.

Apologising to the Hyde Park victims and families, the Chief Constable said: “I apologise unreservedly for the mistakes and errors made by the PSNI during the administrative process.”

Meanwhile, former Northern Ireland secretary of state Labour MP Peter Hain has been accused of giving “less than helpful” and “certainly incomplete” testimony to the inquiry.

More than 40 letters were sent out by his two predecessors, John Reid and Paul Murphy, though the pace accelerated after Mr Hain left office, illustrated by the fact that 85 letters were sent by his successor Shaun Woodward.

However, Mr Hain, who served in Belfast between May 2005 and June 2007, said that “successive attorney generals, Labour and Conservative” had confirmed that the legality of the letters “so contradicting the committee’s different suggestion.

“Although I flatly disagree with some of the Committee’s conclusions, it is welcome that they did not question either my integrity or that of other Labour ministers or our civil servants intimately involved in successfully delivering peace and stability to NI, said Hain, who retires in May,” he said.

“We behaved throughout with one purpose in mind: to end the terror and horror and bring bitter old enemies to govern together, and in that we succeeded.”

Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionists’ Tom Elliott said the report showed “that both the British and Irish governments were complicit in an underhand deal to appease Sinn Féin” and he accused former taoiseach Bertie Ahern of having tried to secure an “utterly shameful” amnesty.