Belfast Telegraph

Hugh Orde: NIO did not press me to free republican suspects

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

Former police chief Sir Hugh Orde has strongly rejected claims of political pressure on his force to release republican terror suspects.

Retired Detective Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter last week claimed there was "a culture within the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that republicans were not prosecuted".

He alleged that within hours of the 2007 arrests of two terror suspects in relation to a murder bid on a part-time UDR soldier, Downing Street contacted his superiors urging their release.

Yesterday Sir Hugh, PSNI Chief Constable from 2002 until 2009, rejected those allegations.

"At no time did Number 10 try to influence my decision-making. At no time did any Secretary of State – and I had four of those – try to influence me," said Sir Hugh.

"And at no time did any official from the Northern Ireland Office ever try to influence my operational decision-making. And had they, I would have made it public immediately."

Both Sir Hugh and former Secretary of State Shaun Woodward gave evidence before the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee on the contentious on-the-runs letters scheme.

Sir Hugh said he would not have been surprised if Gerry Adams had rung Downing Street to complain.

"So No 10, or probably through the NIO, there might well have been a telephone call to whoever was on call to advise that Mr Adams on that occasion had been complaining," he said.

He added: "That is important because complaints from senior politicians from whatever side can have operational implications, there could be public order implications, for example, we would need to consider, but never did anyone try to influence the due process that I was charged with delivering."

Mr Woodward said the scheme was "sensitive not secretive" and flatly denied they amounted to amnesties or pardons.

Letters were sent to more than 180 people in a secret scheme which was made public following the collapse of the trial of alleged Hyde Park bomber John Downey.

He wrongly received one of the letters, leading to the collapse of his trial earlier this year for the 1982 IRA atrocity.

Mr Woodward, who was Labour's Northern Ireland Secretary from 2007-10, said he was surprised at the outcome of the Downey trial, and added the administrative scheme was lawful.

"I remain astonished that these letters can be used to take the force that they did, can be used to take the interpretation that they have.

"It was a mistake. The problem is the mistake, for the victims involved in this, is appalling and indescribable."

Sir Hugh said Mr Baxter knew Mr Downey was wanted by the Metropolitan Police.

BACKGROUND

The Westminster inquiry is expected to call former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his then chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell. As well as the committee investigation into the on-the-run scheme, a judge is conducting another review. The probe, headed by Lady Justice Heather Hallett, is due to report in the summer. It was called after First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign.

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