The collapse of former IRA man John Downey’s trial has caused widespread shock and triggered talk of a crisis at the Stormont Assembly.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron described a ‘comfort letter’ issued to Downey, which the judge said prevented prosecution, as a ‘dreadful mistake’.
The PM took swift action and ordered a full examination of the ‘administrative scheme’, introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government, under which the letter was issued. The investigation, which will be conducted by an independent judge, should cast light on a number of key questions about the scheme.
We’ve learned that around 187 letters were issued to IRA ‘On the Runs’ (OTRs), who had reason to believe they were suspected of committing crimes during the Troubles. The independent review needs to determine exactly how many were written, what they contained and how they are likely to affect future prosecutions.
Downey’s letter stated that there was no evidence to bring charges against him in Northern Ireland. It also said “the PSNI are not aware of any interest in you from any other force”. That assertion was wrong. The Metropolitan Police in London had issued a warrant for his arrest, in connection with the Hyde Park bombing.
Judge Mr Justice Sweeney decided that the court couldn’t ignore the PSNI’s false but ‘unequivocal’ statement that Downey was not a wanted man. It’s regrettable that his decision wasn’t appealed and tested further. However it doesn’t seem likely that every letter which was written prevents further prosecutions.
If the information they contain was accurate at the time, nothing that the judge said suggests that police couldn’t open a new investigation or bring charges based on a fresh look at the evidence. That’s important, so that justice can be delivered in the future and the independent review should make this clear.
The Downey case challenges us to think about how we deal with our troubled past in Northern Ireland. There cannot be a one sided process, with a small number of people held to account, while the bloodiest group of perpetrators claim the right to evade investigation and prosecution.
The way OTRs have been dealt with is a murky, squalid issue. The parties at Stormont are now engaged in a frantic debate over who knew how much about what. It seems that, in the case of the DUP and others, it’s sometimes best not to be acquainted with too much fine detail, in case ‘plausible deniability’ is required.
The issue is far too important to become a matter for party politics. David Cameron has done the right thing by ordering a thorough review as quickly as possible. Hopefully it can provide clear answers about how these letters operated, so that the police service can get on with the important business of delivering justice for victims.