Belfast Telegraph

Official unaware of Downey interest

A civil servant who signed a letter telling a fugitive republican he was no longer wanted was unaware of his notoriety, an inquiry has heard.

Mark Sweeney put his signature to 60 of the 95 of the so-called "letters of comfort" during his three years at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in what he described as an "exceptional" scheme.

But, he told MPs examining the controversial on-the-runs scheme, he did not realise one of the recipients - John Downey -- was being hunted by police investigating the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

He said: "Downey didn't mean anything to individuals in the NIO including me."

John Downey walked free from the Old Bailey last year when his prosecution for the murders of four soldiers in the IRA's attack collapsed after it emerged he had been mistakenly assured in an official letter he was able to return to the UK.

Mr Sweeney said it was regrettable that the letter had been mistakenly sent but claimed it had gone out in good faith.

"I am very sorry the letter issued, it clearly shouldn't have done," he added. "I wouldn't want anyone to be in any doubt that's what I think.

"It is also the case, as far as I am concerned, that the NIO sent the letter in good faith having been assured that Mr Downey was not wanted and having checked to that effect.

"That doesn't mean that I don't deeply regret that the letter issued it shouldn't have done. It's absolutely clear."

Mr Sweeney, who headed the NIO's Rights and International Relations Division between 2004 and 2007 was giving evidence to a Northern Ireland Affairs select committee inquiry at Westminster.

He had been prevented from giving evidence at a previous session but appeared today accompanied by Simon Case, a former deputy director, security and legacy group at the NIO, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers and Permanent Secretary Sir Jonathan Stephens.

The OTR scheme started in 2000 and saw around 95 of the letters of comfort issued by the Government to suspects linked by intelligence to almost 300 murders.

They told people they were not wanted at that time but did not rule out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

The plan was drawn up following pressure from Sinn Fein to allow the fugitives, who had they been in prison before 1998 would have been released under the Good Friday Agreement, to return to Northern Ireland.

An investigation was launched by MPs when the prosecution of John Downey was halted after he received one of the OTR letters in error.

The PSNI was heavily criticised for failing to inform the authorities issuing the letter that Mr Downey was wanted by the Metropolitan Police for questioning over the Hyde Park outrage.

Mr Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, denied involvement in the attack.

The error, and subsequent missed opportunities to correct it, happened in the period from 2007 to 2009.

The PSNI had been assessing evidence in individual cases as part of the process since 2000 but in 2007 it initiated a fresh drive to complete the task - called Operation Rapid - after the Government signalled a desire for it to be sorted out.

The renewed impetus from the Labour administration came in the politically-sensitive period before devolution was restored to Stormont.

Mr Sweeney claimed he never felt under any pressure to "sort out" the Downey or other cases.

He said: "In my experience ministers never placed any pressure on me or other official colleagues to seek particular outcomes.

"What they were keen to do in relation to administrative scheme they wanted the police to put more resource in; they wanted it to be done as quickly as possible because they were feeling that pressure from Sinn Fein which both the former prime minister and former secretary of state have both spoken about.

"The other thing they were keen officials do, and on this we drew a blank, was after the withdrawal of the Northern Ireland Offences Bill in January 2006 was to see if there were any other ways, always of course within the law, which would allow a means of dealing with those who were wanted and who were just going to remain so, which would be acceptable to Sinn Fein.

"No means of doing that was ever found."

Meanwhile, it was also revealed that Mr Downey did not have an original OTR letter when he was arrested and that the copy which was sent from the NIO to the Met following his arrest at Gatwick Airport was unsigned.

Ian Paisley, MP for North Antrim said: "It looks like Gerry Kelly kept them safe and decided if they were allowed to use it."

Mr Paisley later added: "He (John Downey) never had it. He was just aware of it. He was acting in good faith with his Sinn Fein officials."

MPs, who last week heard from former prime minister Tony Blair, are not expected to hold further evidence sessions.

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