UK & World News

  • 28 February 2014, 16:47

IRA Letter Scheme A 'Murky Deal', Says Robinson

Northern Ireland's First Minister has labelled the Government's handling of so-called on-the-run Republican terror suspects as a "murky deal" with Sinn Fein.

Peter Robinson's comments come amid a row over whether letters sent to nearly 200 alleged IRA fugitives as part of the ongoing peace process provided them with immunity.

The writing of state-sanctioned letters, which effectively granted immunity from arrest, led to the collapse of the trial of John Downey, who was suspected of involvement in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

Addressing the Northern Ireland Assembly which had been recalled to debate the controversy, he said: "Let me make it clear that this British government and Sinn Fein scheme is and was wrong.

"Many people considered it had the impact in the Downey case of providing an effective amnesty."

Mr Robinson said the "secret letters" scheme exposed to the full glare of public attention a process that had been agreed well over a decade ago between Sinn Fein and the British government.

He said he believed only Sinn Fein was aware of an "administrative process and a provision of letters of comfort" to on-the-runs.

And in response to claims by Sinn Fein that the Democratic Unionist Party had "manufactured" a crisis, he told the Stormont assembly the "outrage" was "not synthetic".

"It was on outrage felt by victims, by those within the political process, that they had been bypassed by the British Government and Sinn Fein," he said.

In reference to Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement on Thursday of a judge-led inquiry into the arrangement, Mr Robinson said the full investigation could not be "a paper exercise".

He said it needed to "get at the truth of all that went on" in order to restore public confidence  - which he said had been "seriously damaged by this murky deal".

Mr Robinson said the issue raised a number of fundamental issues which demanded answers.

"We want to find out who knew what and when about letters being made available to on-the-runs," he said.

"We want to know what happened in the Downey case, never happens again.

"We want to be sure that those who are the recipients of these letters cannot rely on them to avoid questioning or prosecution, or on the basis of information or evidence that is now or may later become available."

The emergency debate was focused  on a motion tabled by the DUP expressing disgust at the deal the UK Government struck with Sinn Fein on OTRs.

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of irresponsibly threatening the stability of power sharing.

"At many times throughout this process I could have walked away, I could have threatened to resign. I have not done that," he said.

"I have sought solutions and agreement and we have progressed to where we are today because of those agreements. The peace and political process needs (to be) defended, protected and promoted by all political leaders - it certainly does not need to be threatened."

The DUP motion was passed with only Sinn Fein members voting against it.

Mr Cameron has said the independent judge appointed to oversea the inquiry will have "full access to Government files and officials" and would report by May.

Earlier, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers conceded there was "grave concern" about the way the scheme, created by the previous government, was operated.

But she reiterated her pledge that the so-called "amnesty" letters would not prevent suspects from being "questioned or prosecuted".

Victims' Commissioner Kathryn Stone said terrorism victims in Northern Ireland had been left "disappointed and bemused" by the revelations surrounding the Downey case.

Ms Stone, who has been appointed by the Stormont administration to independently represent the views of victims, added: "There are a lot of myths, let's make sure that we have real clarity," she said.

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