Inquiry finds IRA guarantees an attempt to ‘distort’ legal system

Commons MPs say former PM Tony Blair bowed to SF pressure over ‘comfort letters’

Alleged IRA Hyde Park bomber John Downey, whose 2013 prosecution collapsed over the ‘no trial’ guarantee in a letter. The letter was central in the House of Common inquiry. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Alleged IRA Hyde Park bomber John Downey, whose 2013 prosecution collapsed over the ‘no trial’ guarantee in a letter. The letter was central in the House of Common inquiry. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

 

Former prime minister Tony Blair and senior Labour ministers attempted to “distort the legal system” by giving assurances to more than 200 republicans that they were not wanted for prosecution, a House of Commons inquiry has declared.

In a hard-hitting report, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee found that the On The Runs scheme was “questionably unlawful”. The judgment disagrees with one last year from one of the UK’s most senior judges, Lady Justice Hallett.

Sinn Féin pushed Mr Blair relentlessly for the so-called letters of comfort, and he bowed to the demands without telling any other Northern Ireland party leaders about what was going on, the report said.

The British government must now state its policy on whether it will attempt to seek the extradition of “those who were still wanted at the end of the OTR scheme”, including Rita O’Hare, a Dublin-based Sinn Féin figure.

The report recommends that legislation be rushed through Westminster in an attempt to ensure that suspected IRA fugitives are not able to claim that they cannot be prosecuted, as happened with the alleged Hyde Park bomber, John Downey.

More than 200 letters were sent, but the number would have been far greater if the attorney general, Lord Williams of Mostyn, had not imposed restrictions during Peter Mandelson’s time as Northern Ireland secretary of state in the 1990s.

“Without [his] restrictions, that only the evidential, rather than the public interest test, would be considered, it is possible that many more of those on the Sinn Féin lists may have been eligible for a letter stating they were not wanted,” the report said.

In a letter to Mr Mandelson at the time, Lord Williams said he was “seriously concerned” that the letters had “the capacity of severely undermining confidence in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland at this most sensitive of times”.

Judged on evidence

MPs on the committee rejected a central defence of Labour ministers, who argued that the letters were needed to reassure people who were not wanted for prosecution that they would not face arrest if they returned to Northern Ireland or travelled into Britain.

“It is hard to understand how anyone could consider that writing letters to innocent people saved the peace process. We therefore conclude the scheme did amount to an amnesty of sorts, in at least one case – that of John Downey,” the report said. In 2013, the Old Bailey ruled that Mr Downey’s prosecution could not go ahead because he had believed that he was entitled to travel into the North and Britain from his Co Donegal home without fear of arrest because he had been told that he was not wanted.

Absence of appeal

“We are surprised that the balance was placed in favour of preserving the integrity of the criminal justice system over the public interest involved in continuing the trial of someone accused of carrying out multiple murders.

“On the contrary, the committee believed that the integrity of the British criminal justice system and the British government’s own reputation had been damaged by the stay which was put on the case”.