Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Fugitives probe 'will be rigorous'

Lady Justice Heather Hallett is conducting a review of a government scheme on the handling of fugitive republicans
Lady Justice Heather Hallett is conducting a review of a government scheme on the handling of fugitive republicans

A judge investigating a Government scheme to deal with fugitive republicans has pledged to conduct a "rigorous" probe.

Lady Justice Heather Hallett - appointed to conduct the review ordered by the Prime Minister - has been promised full co-operation and access to all relevant material by official departments and agencies.

She said: "Although appointed by Government, I will carry out my task independently and impartially."

David Cameron announced the inquiry 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, was halted last month when it emerged he was wrongly sent a so-called letter of assurance informing him the authorities in the UK were not looking for him.

Downey, who was wanted by detectives in London, had denied the murder of the four soldiers.

Contention intensified when it emerged that around 190 letters had been sent to on-the-runs (OTRs) under a scheme agreed by the previous Labour government and Sinn Fein.

Lady Justice Hallett said: "I intend to conduct a full and rigorous examination of the administrative scheme from its inception to date."

She will:

:: Seek independent expert assistance to examine relevant police databases relating to all recipients of letters of assurance.

:: Examine documentation relating to the scheme and individuals held by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Metropolitan Police, Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Office, Cabinet Office and the Attorney General.

:: Interview politicians, civil servants and police officers involved in the on-the-runs administrative scheme.

She said: "I have been promised full co-operation and access to all relevant material by the relevant government departments and agencies.

"No individual or organisation is on trial. However, I am seeking to establish the facts and, where necessary, accountability in relation to what happened, ie, how the scheme evolved and who was or is responsible for its operation."

She said while it was a matter for police and prosecutors to determine whether evidence exists to warrant an arrest, it was a matter of fact whether somebody was wanted or whether names appeared on a database.

Lady Justice Hallett added: "As well as the independent analysis of the databases, I intend to sample a number of case files during my examination of police and prosecution records, to ascertain whether or not any other recipients of the letters have been told they are not of interest to the police when in fact they are."

Many politicians at Stormont, particularly unionists, reacted furiously to revelations about the letters of assurance during the Downey trial, which followed his arrest at Gatwick airport last May while on his way to Greece.

The messages were an attempt to resolve the long-running issue of On The Runs, escaped prisoners or those who feared arrest for paramilitary crimes committed in the UK before the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, the judge was told.

The court also heard that the first letters had come from 10 Downing Street, when Tony Blair was prime minister.

The scheme was intended to clarify whether or not individuals were wanted by the authorities, while explicitly not ruling out future prosecutions if further evidence became available.

While Democratic Unionist Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson said he knew nothing about the process, Sinn Fein accused rivals of manufacturing a crisis and claimed information about the process was already in the public domain.

The broad terms of reference for the Hallett Review are to produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the administrative scheme; to determine whether any other letters sent through the scheme contained errors; and to make recommendations on those or "related matters" drawn to the attention of the inquiry.

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