Belfast Telegraph

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

Former Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan has said he had no problem with the Government's scheme for dealing with fugitive republicans as long as it did not offer amnesty from prosecution.

Under an administrative system drawn up during the peace process, more than 200 'On The Runs' (OTRs) were told by the Government that they were no longer sought for paramilitary crimes. The messages did not rule out future prosecutions if new evidence emerged.

Mark Durkan, Foyle MP, is a former leader of the nationalist SDLP and was deputy first minister from 2001 to 2002 in Stormont's power-sharing administration.

He said: "A scheme that was simply about confirming whether or not there was an interest, we didn't have a problem with, but not something that tilted into potentially giving people letters of indemnity or some sort of certification of amnesty or court immunity."

Mr Durkan gave evidence to Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into OTRs.

MPs are examining the Government scheme for dealing with Irish republicans who had received letters stating that they were not wanted by police for paramilitary crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Letters were issued to more than 190 republican OTRs.

Members of the committee have already heard that 95 of 228 republicans who received the controversial messages from the Government have been linked to 295 murders.

The letters came to light in February when the trial of John Downey for the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing which killed four soldiers was halted because he had mistakenly received one of those letters when the Metropolitan Police were looking for him. Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.

Police in Northern Ireland have been heavily criticised for their handling of the case. Stopping the prosecution at the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Sweeney said sending the letter to Mr Downey had been a "catastrophic" mistake.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Matt Baggott apologised on behalf of the force following the judgment.

As well as the committee investigation, a judge is conducting another review. The inquiry, headed by Lady Justice Hallett, which was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron, is due to report in the summer.

Dave Cox was former head of the Historical Enquiries Team of detectives which reviewed more than 3,000 unresolved killings during the conflict.

He told the committee none of the cases he dealt with, mainly involving the 1970s, were the subject of so-called comfort letters to OTRs.

Further reading

OAP's legal bid to have 'on-the-run' scheme quashed

Hyde Park bomb suspect John Downey faces new Scotland Yard probe over IRA attacks 

Trimble 'hurt' over OTR letters

On the runs: 95 republicans linked to 200 terrorist murders says senior PSNI man 

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