Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

OTR letters scheme not secret: Reid

Lord Reid said the scheme that dispatched so-called letters of assurance was not confidential

The Government did not pro-actively publicise a contentious scheme to deal with on-the-run republicans but the process was not a secret, a former Northern Ireland Secretary has insisted.

Lord Reid told a Westminster committee some elements of the peace process were dealt with confidentially but stressed the administrative scheme that dispatched so-called letters of assurance, telling around 200 individuals they were not being actively sought by the authorities, was not one of them.

"I am not suggesting for a minute we advertised this, I am not suggesting for a minute we went out and made public statements about this scheme," he told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

The Labour peer added: "We didn't do that, I admit that, but it wasn't kept a secret."

The politician, who also served as Home Secretary under the last government, was giving evidence to the committee's ongoing inquiry into a scheme that was thrust into public focus after the collapse of a court case against a man accused of the IRA's Hyde Park bomb.

The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, over the 1982 bomb attack that killed four soldiers was halted in February this year after a judge found he had been wrongly sent one of the letters in 2007, 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.

As well as the Downey case, the committee is examining the wider scheme agreed between Sinn Fein and the Labour administration.

Unionists in particular have been fiercely critical of the process in the wake of the Downey judgment, claiming it was carried out without their knowledge.

Lord Reid said Northern Ireland Office (NIO) officials held secret meetings during the peace process, citing encounters with IRA members.

"There were meetings that were secret, this (the scheme) wasn't in that category," he said.

"It wasn't confidential in the sense that if somebody asked me about it I would say 'oh no, no such thing exists' and it was known about more widely than perceived but I am not going to question the integrity of any politician who says 'I knew nothing about this'."

Lord Reid, who was Northern Ireland Secretary from 2001 to 2002, said the issue of dealing with on-the-runs had been raised in parliament and a number of answers were provided to questions tabled by MPs.

He insisted the letters, apart from the mistake in the Downey case, were only sent to individuals who the authorities were not seeking and made the point that a number of fugitives who were being actively sought were unable to obtain the documents.

He rejected the suggestion that the letters effectively amounted to amnesties.

"I can see why some people reading some of the headlines might gain that wrong impression and that's why the work of this committee is so important," he said.

"I think it's very important that this committee allows people to know that this was not an amnesty.

"You might not agree with what was done, you might not even agree with the way in which it was done, and obviously I will try to justify that, particularly in the circumstances of the time, but I think it's important for a committee like this, with all the feelings and passions and politics that surround this issue, to, as you would ask me to do, to put the victims at the middle of this and not to say or do anything which encourages them in their belief that this was ever meant as an amnesty - it was not."

Noting that there was not intense questioning of the Government by non-Sinn Fein politicians in Northern Ireland during his time in office, he suggested the issue may not have featured so high up their radar because they were more concerned about the prospect of some form of amnesty being introduced for suspects who were wanted.

"That's why 12 years ago the pre-occupation of most politicians in Northern Ireland was to argue against an amnesty, rather than to worry about an administrative scheme that was apparently designed to tell people who weren't wanted, they weren't wanted, and tell people who were wanted, they were still wanted," he said.

Lord Reid told the committee that if any MP in the UK had come forward with a name of an individual seeking to establish if they were wanted by the authorities, the same checks that were carried out on Sinn Fein forwarded names would have been conducted.

He noted that SDLP West Belfast MLA Alex Attwood had made a provisional enquiry more than a decade ago about an individual who had fled the jurisdiction while on bail.

The former cabinet minister also addressed controversy around the use of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy (RPM) to reduce sentences of offenders.

He said 16 were issued during the 14 years Labour was in power but insisted none were either pre or post-convictions pardons.

Lord Reid explained that the RPMs were given to individuals whose circumstances were not technically covered by the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 but were within the spirit of the legislation, for example those who had served two years in prison, but not all of the sentence had been spent in a UK prison.

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 later in the summer.

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