Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

On-the-run letters scheme over, vows Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

Apology: Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Apology: Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

The Government has formally killed off the 'letters of comfort' scheme which allowed on-the-run IRA suspects to return home free of prosecution.

"No letters have been issued by the NIO since December 2012 and as far as this Government is concerned, the scheme is over," Secretary of State Theresa Villiers will say today.

The announcement is expected in a speech due to be delivered to the Association of European Journalists in Belfast.

Ms Villiers will say: "For the avoidance of any doubt it needs to be clearly understood by all recipients that no letters which have been issued can be relied on to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence becomes available now or later."

It is understood that this means that former fugitives who – like John Downey, the suspected Hyde Park bomber freed last month – have received letters saying they are not wanted can only rely on them to a limited extent.

While they cannot be charged on existing evidence alone, if new evidence came to light then existing evidence could be used to corroborate it.

Referring to Mr Downey, who is suspected of the 1982 attack which killed four soldiers, she said: "And in the case of Mr Downey it was the fact that the letter he was sent was factually incorrect and misleading that led the judge to rule that an abuse of process had occurred.

"John Downey should never have been sent a letter saying he wasn't wanted by the police because at all times he was wanted by the Metropolitan police in relation to the Hyde Park bombing." Ms Villiers issued an apology to "people who have never seen the killers of their loved ones brought to justice".

"I am very sorry that what's happened in recent days will have revived painful memories for many victims," she said.

She also pledged "an end to the era of secret side deals and evasive parliamentary answers" that she said had characterised the previous Labour administration.

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