UK & World News

  • 28 February 2014, 6:14

IRA 'Amnesty' Letters 'Worthless', Says Robinson

IRA suspects are to be told so-called "amnesty" letters they have received will not prevent them from being "questioned or prosecuted".

The warning was issued by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers shortly after Prime Minister David Cameron announced an inquiry into the process which has triggered a political crisis.

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.

Mr Cameron said there would be a judge-led inquiry into the arrangement that led to nearly 200 letters being sent to Republican paramilitaries as part of the ongoing peace process.

Northern Ireland First Minister, the Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, threatened to resign on Wednesday if Mr Cameron did not announce an inquiry, saying he had been "kept in the dark" about a deal.

Mr Robinson later welcomed the judge-led inquiry and the Secretary of State's pledge that "any letters issued cannot be relied upon to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence is now or later becomes available".

"I think that makes it very clear that they have a fairly worthless piece of paper," he said.

"The feeling that they may hold a get out of jail card is no longer there ... I think there are a lot of on-the-runs who will sleep less easy tonight."

Pressed about his resignation threat, he added he had no intention of standing down: "If you get what you want, why on earth would you want to resign."

Sinn Fein said the probe was "unnecessary" because the scheme was "lawful and proper".

Some 187 letters have been sent out as part of the peace process - 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.

Politicians from all sides have been arguing over who knew what about the arrangement.

However, the Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, said the unionists had been aware of the arrangement and it was so widely known Tony Blair's Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell had written about it in his book.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain told Sky News "a lot of mischief" was being made over the letter process, which he said Lord Trimble, a former first minister of Northern Ireland, knew about.

Making the announcement in the middle of a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Cameron said: "I agree with the First Minister of Northern Ireland that, after the terrible error in the (John) Downey case, it is right to get to the bottom of what happened.

"The case has already been referred to the Police Ombudsman but, as the First Minister has said, we should have a full, independent examination of the whole operation of this scheme.

"So I can announce today that we will appoint an independent judge to produce a full public account of the operation of this administrative scheme to determine whether any other letters were sent in error."

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

However, he disputed the letters amounted to an "amnesty", saying: "This process continued under this Government. There was never any amnesty or guarantee of immunity for anyone, and there isn't now."

Brian and Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was killed in the IRA bombings of Birmingham pubs in 1974, told Sky News they were unaware the scheme existed and had been "utterly shocked to the core".

Sky's Ireland Correspondent David Blevins said the Northern Ireland Assembly had been recalled for Friday to discuss the issue.

Mr Downey was told by a judge on Tuesday that he would not be prosecuted because he had been sent a letter by Northern Ireland police in 2007 saying he would not be arrested, despite an outstanding Metropolitan Police arrest warrant for the attack.

As a result of the Scotland Yard warrant the letter should never have been sent and although the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNO) realised this soon after they took no action.

The PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has referred the case to the Police Ombudsman.

Mr Downey denies the murder of four soldiers in the 1982 bombing. Seven horses also died in the attack.

Up to 500 people are expected to attend a homecoming party for him at the Lagoon restaurant in the village of Termon in Donegal on Saturday, where previous fund raisers to help pay for his defence were held.

Jim Allister, of the hardline Traditionalist Unionist Voice (TUV) party branded the event a "ghoulish celebration", but Seamus O'Domhnaill, a Fianna Fail councillor who knows Mr Downey well, said he was an "unassuming" man who should never have been arrested.

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