‘On the run’ letters declared ‘questionably unlawful’ by NI Affairs Committee

Collapse of Downey case prompted inquiry into UK Government letters to Republicans

The year-long inquiry was prompted by the collapse in the prosecution of John Downey for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing. Downey was one of the recipients of the ‘on the run’ letters. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

The year-long inquiry was prompted by the collapse in the prosecution of John Downey for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing. Downey was one of the recipients of the ‘on the run’ letters. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

 

Letters given by the British Government for nearly a decade to Republicans telling them they were not wanted for prosecution were “questionably unlawful”, the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has declared today.

Following nearly a year-long inquiry, prompted by the collapse in the prosecution of one of the recipients of the letters, John Downey for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, MPs complained that victims and their families had not been “well-served” by the British Government.

Accepting that ministers were dealing with “a difficult peace process”, the NI Affairs Committee, however, said “It is questionable whether the ‘on-the-runs’ (OTR) scheme was lawful or not, but we believe its existence distorted the legal process.”

Ministers involved in approving the despatch of letters to Sinn Féin between 1999 and 2007 believed that they had to remain secret but a more open system could have prevented the letter going to Downey, who was still wanted by police at the time.

MPs rejected a central plank in the defence offered by Labour ministers of the time, 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 travel into Britain.

“We do not accept that the OTRs were an ‘anomaly’. If OTRs were suspected of having committed offences, they should have been tried in the normal way. If they were not suspected of anything, then there is no issue,” they said, in a report released at 10am today.

“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,” it said.

In 2013, the Central Criminal Court in the Old Bailey ruled that Downey’s prosecution could not go ahead because he had believed that he was entitled to travel into NI and Britain from his Donegal home without fear of arrest because he had been told that he was not wanted.

Criticising the decision by the Conservative/Liberal Democrats not to appeal the judge’s decision to place a stay on the prosecution, the MPs said: “We regret the absence of an appeal to remove the stay put on the trial.

“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, we believe that the integrity of the criminal justice system, and part of HM Government, has been damaged by the stay which was put on the case,” they declared, in a foreword to their report.

The Commons inquiry said it had been “alarmed” to hear from a senior Police Service of Northern Ireland officer that intelligence linked 95 of the people who received letters to 300 murders during the Troubles.

The “direct involvement” of a succession of Labour secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Office officials and “even No. 10 officials” was “recognised as being extraordinary by many witnesses”, they went on.

Recognising that Sinn Féin did not have confidence in the criminal justice system, the NI Affairs Committee recognised that “extraordinary processes” were needed initially, but should have been abandoned once Sinn Féin signed up to accepting the PSNI’s legitimacy.

The “extraordinary nature” of the OTR scheme required rules from the start to ensure that it did not damage the integrity of the criminal justice system: “It is greatly regrettable that this was not done,” they said.