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Martin McGuinness police file was 'not blocked to save peace'

By Sean O'Driscoll

The Northern Ireland prosecution service has disputed a former UK cabinet minister's claim that it blocked a murder case against Martin McGuinness to save the peace process.

It did confirm that it received a police file on Mr McGuinness's IRA involvement in 1994, one year after he claimed to the BBC that he was not an IRA member.

Norman Tebbit, a former chairman of the Conservative Party and a former Conservative cabinet minister, claimed this week that a senior Northern Ireland prosecutor told him that the prosecution service was forced to drop a murder case against Mr McGuinness to allow peace talks to continue.

Mr McGuinness, the former deputy first minister, died last month from a rare heart condition.

The prosecution service confirmed that it had received a police file.

It said it reviewed the material and advised the police in March 1995 that there was not enough evidence to prosecute him.

That file is strongly believed to relate to Frank Hegarty, an alleged IRA informer who was executed by the IRA in 1986 after Mr McGuinness allegedly reassured his family that he would not be hurt if he returned.

It also included evidence that Mr McGuinness was involved in several other murders, and evidence of IRA membership.

"Police were advised that should further evidence become available, the file could be re-submitted for consideration.

"Political considerations played no part in this decision," the prosecution service said. It also said that it could not find any reference to Mr Tebbit having being in contact with the service, although Mr Tebbit said his contact was informal.

"We have not been able to identify any contact at that time with Mr Tebbit on this case," the prosecution service said in a statement to The Times.

Allegations have hung over police and prosecutors for many years that Mr McGuinness was protected from prosecution in the lead up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Specific claims against Mr McGuinness's role in IRA murders were broadcast in a two-part BBC Cook Report documentary in 1993, in which it was said he was directly responsible for the murder of Mr Hegarty and several other people.

Mr McGuinness denied the claims and said he was not a member of the IRA.

The then Royal Ulster Constabulary opened up a file on Mr McGuinness as a result of the documentary and submitted its evidence to the director of public prosecutions in 1994, just as the IRA was announcing its first ceasefire and Sinn Fein were calling for all-party talks. Mr Tebbit's claims that the prosecution of Mr McGuinness was suppressed is supported by Kathryn Johnston, a journalist who wrote an unauthorised biography of Mr McGuinness with the late Liam Clarke, her husband and a former Sunday Times journalist.

In the book, Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government, the pair claim that police attached a memo to Mr McGuinness's file pointing out that his role in the peace process was a factor to be considered in deciding whether to prosecute.

Ms Johnston told The Times last night that the file was clearly marked with the memo but said it was doubtful that the police would have had enough evidence to prosecute Mr McGuinness.

"From the file, it's difficult to see how they could prosecute. Some of it came from Sean O'Callaghan, the IRA informer, and the rest from two other people, one of whom was willing to give evidence.

"But Mr McGuinness was always careful to distance himself from IRA actions, they needed something that would have brought him close to the acts," she said.

Ms Johnston said that the witness who was willing to give evidence might have recanted later on, given the pressure on IRA informers at the time.

Ms Johnston and her husband were arrested in 2003 for breach of the Official Secrets Act as a result of disclosures in the book.

The police ombudsman strongly condemned the arrests and the police later apologised to the couple.

A spokesman for Jim Allister MLA, the Traditional Unionist Voice leader, said yesterday that Mr Allister had met with a senior figure in the police ombudsman's office in 2009 to discuss possible police interference in the prosecution of Martin McGuinness.

The ombudsman's press officer was not available for comment yesterday.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: "Martin McGuinness worked tirelessly to develop and promote the peace process. His dedication to peace and reconciliation has been recognised throughout Ireland and across the world."

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