Inquiry blames ‘systemic failures’ after IRA suspects were wrongly told they were not wanted by police
Belfast-born David McKittrick has been reporting on Northern Ireland since 1971, He has written for the East Antrim Times, the Irish Times and was The Independent's Irish correspondent for many years. He is the author of several books including Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) and Lost Lives (1999).
Thursday 17 July 2014
A judge-led inquiry ordered after an IRA bomb suspect was wrongly given government assurance he was not wanted by UK police, has identified two other cases where similar errors were apparently made.
In her landmark report, Lady Justice Hallett said she had found “serious systemic failures” in a scheme where letters were issued to republican terrorism suspects – so-called On the Runs – and in the actions of senior police in Belfast.
The scheme was made public when the trial of John Downey, suspected of the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing, collapsed.
Downey was wrongly told he was not wanted by any UK police force. In the furore that followed it emerged that almost 200 republicans had been given such letters saying they were not wanted for prosecution.
Today's review uncovered two other instances in which clearance had been mistakenly given. These and all the other cases are now being re-examined by police in Belfast in a process which is expected to take some years.
Lady Justice Hallett’s review was critical of the way the scheme had been established, saying that while it had not been secret it had been “under the radar”.
It drew apologies from both the Government and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, whose Chief Constable George Hamilton said his force was sorry for the additional pain that bereaved families had had to endure.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said the Government was profoundly sorry for the hurt that had been caused.
A spokesperson for the Wave trauma centre in Belfast, which works with scores of Troubles victims, said today: “This episode, like so many others, reveals once again the need to find a comprehensive, inclusive and sensitive way to deal with the past.”
The case looked like causing serious damage to the Belfast peace process when Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign unless David Cameron set up a full inquiry into the scheme.
However, Lady Justice Hallett included 20 pages of references to the scheme, over a period of years, in newspapers, Hansard and policing board meetings, suggesting pointedly that “dozens of police officers, prison officers, officials and politicians must have known that some sort of scheme was in operation”.
The plan was put in place by the Blair administration at a time when the government was seeking to lead the IRA away from violence. Under its procedures Sinn Fein supplied authorities with the names of more than 200 republicans who wanted assurances that were not actively wanted by police.
Assurances were given in the majority of these cases.
In the case of the Downey prosecution, however, it emerged that he was in fact wanted but that Belfast police had mistakenly declared he was not, leading the judge to conclude that “one catastrophic mistake has been made and cannot be undone”.
Again in 2011 nothing was done to rescind the letter after police became aware of what the assurance said.
The Attorney General confirmed the scheme was lawful, Mr Hain said.
While most cases were dealt with under the last government, almost 40 outstanding applications were taken on by the Coalition Government when it assumed power in 2010. The scheme ended earlier this year.
Q | Who are the 'on-the-runs'?
A | They are more than 200 republican activists who were left in legal limbo after hundreds of prisoners were released from prison following the ending of the IRA’s campaign. They were at liberty but unsure whether they were wanted by the law.
Negotiations between the Government and Sinn Fein then continued for several years, but an attempt to resolve the matter by legislation stalled when both the Commons and Lords MPs and peers made plain their disapproval.
Q | What did the Blair government do then?
A | It quietly negotiated an administrative rather than legal scheme under which Sinn Fein would forward the names of people inquiring whether or not they were wanted. A police unit examined their files and in almost 200 cases they were given letters saying they were not being sought.
Q | How did this come to public notice?
A | The controversy broke out when republican John Downey (pictured) was acquitted of the 1984 murders of four soldiers in Hyde Park, the judge saying he had produced a letter which meant he could not be convicted. It turned out Downey should not have been sent the letter.
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