Belfast Telegraph

On the runs: Government letters of assurance to republican fugitives 'not illegal or immoral'

By Michael McHugh

The sending of government letters of assurance to republican fugitives was not illegal or immoral, a senior civil servant in Northern Ireland said.

Permanent secretary of Northern Ireland's justice department Nick Perry testified that the process established by the former Labour administration to deal with on the runs was scrutinised by senior law officers.

He gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs, sitting in Belfast.

Mr Perry said: "There may be all sorts of issues about it being distasteful. It was not illegal and to that extent I don't believe it was immoral."

The committee is examining the agreement between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government that saw around 200 letters sent to republicans informing them that UK police were not actively seeking them - but not ruling out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

Committee chairman Laurence Robertson said 95 of those who received letters were connected through intelligence to almost 300 murders.

DUP Upper Bann MP David Simpson said: "It shows us the depth that the government of then were prepared to go in order to get Sinn Fein on board.

"It is a can of worms and it is really corrupt."

Mr Perry is a former senior government official at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). He said the letters started towards the tail end of his time there, before he was transferred to Stormont's justice department on devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Northern Ireland in 2010.

He said an issue like the on the runs or the early release of prisoners had to be judged alongside the goal of achieving a lasting political peace settlement and saving people's lives.

He claimed the scheme was a "factual" expression of the situation at the time, reiterating that it did not rule out future prosecutions if new evidence emerged.

The process was established in the years following the Good Friday Agreement and was administered by the NIO with the involvement of Downing Street and senior law figures.

The aim was to deal with cases of republicans who were suspected of IRA terrorism, but who were never charged or convicted of related offences.

The scheme was disclosed followed the collapse of the Hyde Park bomb trial, which was stopped when it emerged the man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA bombing had received one of the letters.

John Downey, who is from County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, had denied the charges.

Sinn Fein has said it will not send Gerry Kelly, a senior member who was involved in the scheme, to give evidence to the committee of MPs.

Mr Robertson said: "I am surprised and disappointed at Mr Kelly's refusal to come and give evidence in public on this important issue.

"One of the biggest problems with this scheme is the secrecy that has surrounded it until now, and it is important now to open it up to public scrutiny, which is what we are trying to do in this inquiry.

"I will be writing to Mr Kelly asking some further questions about his and Sinn Fein's evidence, and contesting some of his assertions."

Further reading

Gerry Kelly 'is a chicken' for snub to OTR probe 

Sinn Fein 'must give OTRs evidence'

On the runs: Mark Durkan 'had no problem with scheme as long as it did not offer amnesty from prosecution' 

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