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No republican fugitives in comfort letter furore have been reported to the PPS

By Michael McHugh

None of the republican fugitives who received a 'comfort letter' from the Government despite being suspected of serious crimes has been reported to the Public Prosecution Service yet.

A total of 145 crimes linked to 36 IRA on-the-runs (OTRs) who received official assurances have been reviewed and forensic evidence examined as a priority, the PSNI chief constable has said.

The status of those involved had originally been changed from wanted to not wanted.

The investigation by detectives in Northern Ireland is ongoing after the issue was raised in a senior judge's report two-and-a-half years ago.

PSNI chief constable George Hamilton said: "At this time no cases have been concluded, no person has been reported to the Public Prosecution Service and potential investigative opportunities are still being sought."

OTRs were suspects fleeing potential imprisonment for murders and other serious offences during the Troubles.

The contentious peace process, agreed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government, saw letters sent to republicans informing them they were not being sought by the authorities in the UK.

Police were asked to review people regarded as "wanted" in connection with terrorist-related offences up to April 10, 1998, the date of the Good Friday Agreement.

Those who were not being actively pursued due to a lack of sufficient evidence received a letter from the Government informing them.

Sinn Fein said the concession was necessary to restore confidence in the Government's commitment to deal with OTRs to ensure the success of arms decommissioning, a review by senior judge Lady Justice Hallett reported.

The Government said it was a statement of fact carrying no future guarantees.

Lady Justice Hallett had said the change in status under the scheme may be because evidence no longer existed and/or in part because the police's Operation Rapid team doing the investigation in 2007/08 may have applied a higher threshold to categorise someone as wanted than previously.

Mr Hamilton updated MPs on the police review. He said: "The 36 individuals, highlighted within the report of Lady Justice Hallett as having had their status changed from wanted to not wanted, have been prioritised.

"The purpose of this is to better understand the rationale for the status change and to identify whether any opportunities currently exist to bring those offenders to justice.

"To date, we have completed reviews of 145 serious crimes to which those individuals are linked and this includes a re-examination of the forensic potential within each case."

Some unionists had claimed the OTR 'comfort letter' scheme was equivalent to a get out of jail free card, something the Government denied.

In 2015, a Westminster inquiry found that the controversial scheme distorted the legal process and may even have been unlawful.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee probe heavily criticised the operation of the administrative process that saw almost 190 individuals obtain a document assuring them they could return to the UK without fear of arrest.

The little-known OTR mechanism, which was set up in 2000 and ran for around 12 years, was thrust into the public domain after the case against John Downey for the murder of four soldiers in the IRA's Hyde Park bombing collapsed.

Downey was sent a letter in error when he was in fact police in London were actively seeking him.

The NI Affairs Committee Report stated: "The judgment in the Downey case served to highlight the inherent risk in the design and subsequent operation of the scheme."

It added: "It is questionable whether the 'on-the-runs' (OTR) scheme was lawful or not, but we believe its existence distorted the legal process."

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