UK & World News

  • 28 February 2014, 12:16

N Ireland Crisis: 'Grave Concern' Over IRA Letters

The Northern Ireland Assembly will hold a special debate later on the controversy surrounding the Government's handling of so-called on-the-run Republican terror suspects.

It comes amid a row over whether letters sent to nearly 200 alleged IRA fugitives as part of the ongoing peace process provided them with immunity.

Northern Ireland First Minister, the Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, has withdrawn his threat to resign over the issue and has said he is satisfied the letters are not worth the paper they are written on and do not provide suspects with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.

Sky's Niall Paterson put it to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers that the problem was "that for some people, at least, the impression has been given that a deal was done behind closed doors".

"Unlike with the Good Friday agreement where people were released from prison but they retained their conviction and they had served a sentence, it does appear that people were being told they wouldn't even face trial," he said.

In response, the Secretary of State 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".

She told Sky News: "All they did was to convey the factual position to individuals as to whether they were or were not sought by police for terrorist offences. If they had conferred an immunity, of course we would have scrapped the scheme there and then.

"As they didn't, it was decided that it was permissable to continue the checks on those cases which were ongoing when this Government took office.

"The letters don't provide immunity and anyone who is holding those letters should be well aware that if evidence emerges that connects them with terrorism then they would be arrested and prosecuted in the normal way.

"The reason why the judge decided that the trial couldn't go ahead in John Downey's case is that he was sent a letter that was misleading.

"The letter said that police in Northern Ireland didn't believe that Mr Downey was wanted for offences in Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the UK. Unfortunately it turned out at the time that they knew he was wanted by the Metropolitan Police in relation to the Hyde Park bombing.

"It was that inaccuracy in the letter that went out which caused the problem with the trial.

"But the letters themselves do not confirm immunity and that is what I have made very clear."

"There is clearly grave concern about the way this scheme was administered ... and we are very clear (that) a full public account of the facts of how the scheme operated (should) be put in the public domain."

Prime Minister David Cameron announced a judge-led inquiry into the arrangement on Thursday "to get to the bottom of what happened".

He said the judge would have "full access to Government files and officials" and would report by May.

Some 187 letters have been sent out as part of the peace process and 38 have been sent since the coalition came to power in 2010, although the applications were received before then, and the last was in December 2012.

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