Government 'was told about Downey'
The Government was informed that a prime suspect in the IRA's Hyde Park bombing was wanted by police the year before it sent him a letter informing him he was not being actively sought, a Westminster committee has heard.
Former Secretary of State Peter Hain told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee he could not recall being sent the correspondence from then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith in 2006 stating that John Downey was wanted for "arrest and questioning in respect of serious terrorist offences".
The prosecution of Mr 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 so-called assurance 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.
The blame for the error in the Downey case has been laid at the door of the PSNI, which compiled a report on Mr Downey for the Government stating he was not wanted.
The letter from Lord Goldsmith, which listed Mr Downey as one of a number of individuals seeking letters, emerged in evidence during a lengthy committee session that also heard a brother of one of the soldiers killed at Hyde Park claim the families felt "cheated" of not having the opportunity to see justice done.
Christopher Daly, brother of Household Cavalry Lieutenant Anthony "Denis" Daly, said: "This whole episode has left the families feeling devastatingly let down."
The committee is holding an inquiry into the Hyde Park episode and the wider administrative scheme that saw around 200 letters sent to republicans.
There were heated exchanges as committee member Ian Paisley Jnr challenged Mr Hain's claim that he first heard of Mr Downey in 2013.
The DUP North Antrim MP read out the letter from Lord Goldsmith which was addressed to Mr Hain and a number of senior NIO officials.
"To be frank, whether it's an oversight on my part, you are reading out a letter that I can't recall Ian," Mr Hain responded.
"It obviously exists or you wouldn't be reading it out."
The Labour MP added: "I am not saying I've never seen it, I'm saying I can't recall it."
Mr Hain then branded as "absolutely outrageous" a later query by Mr Paisley over whether he had "inadvertently perjured" himself by not mentioning the letter in his evidence to the judge in the Downey case.
Details of the administrative scheme, which started running in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, became the focus of intense public scrutiny after the collapse of the Hyde Park case.
The committee is examining the process agreed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government that saw the letters sent.
A number of fugitives who were being actively sought by the authorities were unable to obtain letters.
Mr Hain said the police mistakes in the Downey case were "catastrophic and inexplicable".
But he insisted the wider scheme was both "lawful and honourable".
He said a distinction had to be made between republicans who were on the run because there was evidence linking them to crimes and those who police did not have evidence on.
He insisted letters, apart from the error in the Downey case, were only sent to the latter category.
Mr Hain said that political critics who characterised the letters as "amnesties" or "get out of jail free cards" were causing undue hurt to victims.
"I think when people use phrases like 'getting away with murder' and 'amnesties' and 'get out of jail free cards' in respect of the administrative scheme, when this was never the case, it does cause pain and hurt to victims and I think politicians who try to score political points using the grief of victims do victims no service at all," he said.
Mr Hain acknowledged that he asked for the numbers being processed through the scheme to be accelerated in the period prior to the return of devolution at Stormont in 2007.
He said it was necessary to get Sinn Fein "over the line" when it came to signing up to support law and order - a key prerequisite of the DUP agreeing to go into government with republicans.
"I wanted it speeded up, I was up against a deadline to achieve a peace settlement, which is what we achieved," he said.
"Sinn Fein were engaging in a huge consultation, the leadership were within their organisation, as to whether they could persuade republicans to do something they had never done historically before, namely signing up to support the principles of policing, justice and the rule of law on, of course, a devolved basis, which is what has now happened and has been operating now for a number of years.
"It was absolutely important to get momentum in this so everybody bought into the process."
Lt 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.
His younger brother told MPs that lessons had to be learned from the Downey case.
"The mistakes that were made have left a breach of trust feeling owing to the fact it was professionals in positions of authority that made these mistakes and have effectively cheated us, as in the families, of seeing this previously wanted man having to face justice in court," said Mr Daly.
He told the committee he and the other families had been briefed by the Metropolitan Police on the evidence it held allegedly linking Mr Downey to the bomb.
"He knew what was happening, he knows what he's done and I think when he received this letter of assurance he was probably as surprised as anybody else," said Mr Daly.
"Was there enough evidence? That would really be a situation for a court to determine."
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.