Belfast Telegraph

Coalition 'sent out at least 12 letters to OTRs'

By Michael McHugh

Around a dozen republican suspects received 'on-the-run' letters during the first two years of the coalition government, a former Northern Ireland Secretary said.

Owen Paterson said the administrative scheme for telling people they were not wanted by police for Northern Ireland-related deaths was winding down during his tenure from May 2010. By 2012, efforts to devolve the process to the Assembly had "fallen through the grating". He said the letters did not prevent people from being tried.

The Conservative MP said: "This was a messy issue, it resolved matters none of us knew about because none of us were involved in talks at the time.

"By the time it got to me, it had pretty much run its course.

"I would have stopped it immediately if it had been a horror to victims. I could not see how victims could object to it."

Mr Paterson said around 12 letters were sent in his tenure, a phase when the scheme was winding down until the collapse of the trial of a man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing ignited controversy. Mr Paterson pointed out that the previous Labour government established the scheme.

Alliance Party East Belfast MP Naomi Long said that victims were wounded, hurt and betrayed.

DUP Upper Bann MP David Simpson said: "This process has inflicted pain and torture on victims again. This has opened old wounds, it takes a lot of time to get over these things."

The process emerged in February when the prosecution of John Downey over the murder of four soldiers in the Hyde Park bombing collapsed because he had been sent one of the letters in error, when police were seeking him.

It triggered a storm of controversy at Stormont, with Sinn Fein's political opponents denouncing what they characterised as a secret side-deal that conferred 'get out of jail free' cards on terror suspects. DUP First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said the Government would no longer stand over the factual accuracy of the letters and claimed they were effectively worthless documents.

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