Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

95 OTRs 'linked to 295 murders'

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott, right, and Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris arrive at the House of Commons to give evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Ninety five recipients of so-called letters of comfort issued by the Government have links to almost 300 terrorist murders , police have revealed.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris told a Westminster committee that the individuals had links to 200 murder investigations.

But after Mr Harris had concluded giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the PSNI issued a statement of clarification that those 200 incidents actually involved the murder of 295 people.

Committee members are holding an inquiry into the contentious on-the-run (OTR) administrative process, agreed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government, which saw letters sent to about 190 republicans informing them they were not being sought by the authorities in the UK.

As part of the process, police were asked to review the status of 228 individuals to assess if they were either wanted or not at that particular point in time.

Those who were not being actively pursued due to a lack of sufficient evidence received a letter from the Government officially informing them of their status.

Mr Harris, who was appearing alongside PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott, stressed that the links with the 95 individuals may not have been strong enough to justify an arrest.

"That linkage may only be intelligence," he said.

Mr Harris also said five individuals in possession of letters were now under active police investigation on the back of new evidence unearthed by the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

The senior officer said he was not sure if the new evidence related to the five recipients would effectively annul the letters.

"That is not clear as we are speaking today," he said.

He said files would be passed to prosecutors in Northern Ireland to assess whether charges could be pursued.

"I don't know whether they (the letters) will be annulled or not," he said.

Details of the scheme, which started running in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, emerged after the collapse of a case against a man accused of the IRA's Hyde Park bomb in 1982 - an attack that killed four soldiers.

The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, over the Hyde Park outrage was halted in February after a judge found he had been wrongly sent one of the letters, when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him.

The judge decided his prosecution had therefore represented an abuse of process.

Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.

In the fall-out from the controversy, the PSNI is reviewing its initial assessment of all 228 individuals to see if any other errors were made or if any fresh evidence has emerged. Mr Harris said that operation - called Redfield - could take "two to three years".

In regard to the linkages to the 95 individuals, he added: "All of that is now being assessed and obviously we want to get to an evidential footing and all of that work is what Redfield is taking on.

"So it is a re-examination of each individual and all of the crimes they are connected to."

North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley Jnr said it broke his heart that the letters had apparently cleared the 95 individuals.

Mr Baggott insisted that the original police assessment may have been correct - that there was not enough evidence to detain the individuals.

"I wouldn't say this cleared people of murders - that is a rather extreme statement - I think we have to work through this methodically," he said.

"Mr Harris did say these were linked - that doesn't mean to say there is evidence there. They could have gone through a proper review process and there still may not be reasonable grounds to arrest, so I think we have got to let that process of thorough review (Operation Redfield) take place first of all.

"Yes, the figures are there and they look stark but we will have to wait and see if there is sufficiency (in terms of evidence) there."

Police in Northern Ireland have been heavily criticised for their handling of the Downey case. Halting the prosecution at the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Sweeney said sending the letter to Mr Downey had been a ''catastrophic'' mistake.

Mr Baggott apologised on behalf of the service in the wake of the judgment.

As well as the committee investigation into the on-the-run scheme, a judge is carrying out another review.

The inquiry headed by Lady Justice Hallett, which was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron, is due to report in the summer.

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