Belfast Telegraph

'Clear warning' over OTR letters

The Government has issued a "fair and clear warning" to Irish republicans in receipt of official letters assuring them they are not wanted by UK police that they cannot rely on them to avoid future prosecution.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers delivered what she described as "urgent clarification" regarding the status of the documents as she formally outlined how the Government was implementing the critical findings of a judge-led review of the so-called on-the-run (OTR) scheme.

Ms Villiers had already previewed the broad outline of today's statement to Parliament when she appeared before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last week.

But she said there was a need to make an oral statement to the House of Commons to ensure that those processed through the scheme, which was developed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour administration, were acutely aware of the Government's stance.

"They now have fair and clear warning that such comfort as they may have derived from the statements can no longer be taken," she said.

"There is no continuing basis for any reliance on the past statements.

"This scheme is at an end.

"All those who sought or received statements through the administrative scheme should take note of this statement today.

"I have deliberately made it in the public setting of Parliament, recognising and intending that it should be widely publicised as a result.

"I will take further steps to disseminate it."

Ms Villiers said the scheme was never designed to confer immunity from prosecution, but said there was a need to officially clarify and restate that in the wake of controversial John Downey case.

The issue was thrust into public prominence in February when the prosecution of Downey for the murders of four soldiers in the IRA's Hyde Park bombing collapsed because it emerged he had been sent one of the letters in error, when in fact police were seeking him

The Old Bailey trial judge found that John Downey's arrest in the UK last year, when he had been told he was free to return, represented an abuse of process - not that the letter conferred immunity from prosecution.

Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, denied involvement in the 1982 attack.

In July, the Government ordered review of the scheme found that it was systematically flawed in operation but not unlawful in principle.

Lady Justice Hallett, who conducted the probe, said a "catastrophic" error had been made in the Downey case, but she insisted the letters of assurance did not amount to amnesties or get-out-of-jail-free cards.

Under the scheme, which started running in 2000, almost 190 republicans who had left the UK jurisdiction received assurances they were not being sought by British authorities.

A number who applied for assurances were not granted them because they were considered as wanted.

Last week, Ms Villiers said the Government was not prepared to stand over the factual accuracy of the documents any more, after numerous errors were flagged up in the Hallett review.

But she said there were no plans to introduce legislation to change the status of the letters, insisting the most appropriate way of making clear they were no longer of value was with a public statement.

Police in Northern Ireland are currently reviewing the cases of all those who received letters to re-assess the evidence - an exercise anticipated to take years.

Lady Justice Hallett flagged up two other letters where errors had been made, but police have insisted those mistakes have been managed.

Ms Villiers said her statement would not 100% guarantee that abuse of process bids could not be made in the future, but she said the Government was doing as much as it could to avoid a repeat of the Downey case.

The Conservative MP, who expressed hope her remarks would "draw a line" under the OTR affair, said she had consulted with the police and prosecuting authorities over the best way forward before deciding on her response.

The Northern Ireland Secretary also reiterated her view that it was not appropriate to view the letters as something the Government could rescind or revoke, as they were statements of fact at a point of time.

She made clear that her statement did not mean that individuals told through one of the letters they were not wanted had now suddenly become wanted.

"It may well be that after review of these cases the conclusion may well be the same, it may still be that in many of these cases the individuals concerned are not wanted and there is no evidence to justify prosecution," she said.

"So I think it would be a mistake to assume that all those individuals processed by the scheme were terrorists, that is not something that has been established.

"It has been established that some mistakes were made in some cases which is why these letters should no longer be relied on."

The OTR scheme saw names of individuals passed to the Government, the majority through Sinn Fein.

The names were then handed to police and prosecutors to assess their status.

A report on each individual was sent back to the Government and, if they were declared as not being wanted, a letter of assurance was then issued to the individuals.

Police in Northern Ireland were widely blamed for the error in the Downey case for not flagging up his wanted status in their report sent to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

Household Cavalry Lieutenant Anthony "Denis" Daly, 23, died in the explosion in Hyde Park on July 20 1982 alongside Trooper Simon Tipper, 19, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young, 19, and 36-year-old Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright.

Ms Villiers repeated the Government's assertion that the stay put on the prosecution of Downey rendered it "inconceivable" that he would ever be taken to court over the Hyde Park bombing again.

But she said there was a pressing need to spell out to other recipients of letters that they can not rely on them for protection from the law.

"Lady Justice Hallett emphasised on a number of occasions in her report that the letters, however phrased, were not an amnesty," she said.

"They were not a commitment by the state that individuals would not be prosecuted, whatever the strength of the case against them.

"They were only ever at statements of the facts, as they were believed to be at the time, as to whether an individual was wanted for questioning by the police or not.

"They were not intended to preclude investigation or prosecution on the basis of new evidence emerging after they were sent or on the basis of fresh assessment of the existing evidence.

"But in the light of her report, and in the light of the Downey case, it is clear to me that urgent clarification is needed as to what, if any, comfort can be derived from those letters now."

She indicated that the views of police and prosecutors upon which the original letters were based were no longer relevant.

"It is the views of those who are taking the decisions now, or in the future, that matter," she said.

"All the evidence will be taken into account, regardless of whether it was available before the letters were sent or whether it has emerged subsequently.

"This does not mean that all those who received 'not wanted' statements in the past are now considered 'wanted'.

"It simply means that they are in the same position as any other member of the public.

"If there is considered to be evidence or intelligence of their involvement in crime, they will be investigated by the police and if the evidence is sufficient to warrant prosecution, they will be prosecuted.

"This was always the intended status of the scheme but the issues raised by the Downey case and highlighted in the Hallett Report have made today's clarification necessary."

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Ivan Lewis welcomed her comments.

"We welcome the Government's statement today, which once again makes it clear the OTR scheme did not seek to offer an amnesty to anyone suspected of committing a terrorist offence," he said.

"However, Lady Justice Hallett uncovered potential administrative errors which if not addressed run the risk of denying victims justice in the future. In these circumstances, the Government had no option but to clarify the status of the letters.

"I have apologised to the families of the Hyde Park victims for the catastrophic error made in the Downey case.

"However, the scheme was part of a historic peace process, which ended 30 years of troubles and brought to an end the killings, brutality and fear which destroyed too many lives. I am immensely proud of Labour's central role in making that peace possible."

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