On-the-runs could still face prosecution for offences, warns Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Published 28/03/2014 | 02:30
On-the-runs such as John Downey could still be prosecuted for Troubles era offenses, the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has warned.
The minister was speaking at the conclusion of a Westminster debate on the controversial Downey judgment. The debate was secured by Nigel Dodds of the DUP with cross-party support.
"Nobody holding one of these letters should be in any doubt – they will not protect you from arrest or prosecution if the police can gather sufficient evidence against you. They are not an exemption, immunity or amnesty, something that could only ever be granted by parliament. They are not getting out of jail-free cards," Ms Villiers stated.
Mr Downey, a Donegal republican, was arrested and charged with the 1982 Hyde Park bombing at Gatwick airport last month.
The trial collapsed after Mr Downey, who denied the charges, produced a letter from the Northern Ireland Office assuring him that he was not wanted; even though police in Northern Ireland knew he was still being sought by Scotland Yard.
Ms Villiers said: "In relation to the Hyde Park bomb it is most unlikely that the courts would allow the case to be reopened but the position may be different in relation to other offenses for which Mr Downey may be pursued."
The Secretary of State also gave new details of the number of letters which had been given to on the run republicans telling them whether they were wanted for any offenses in the UK.
"NIO records indicated that 207 names were provided by Sinn Fein or by solicitors acting on their behalf. A further 10 names were identified by the Prison Service of Northern Ireland and four by the Irish government bringing the total to 221 names," she stated. Some 45 of these cases were considered by the current government and the remainder by the previous Labour administration which set the scheme.
She added that "at least 187" had been told they weren't wanted and that the government had to compare records with Sinn Fein to arrive at this figure. She said the scheme was now closed.
Last month First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to withdraw from government unless a judge-led inquiry into the scheme was initiated. The government met his demand and yesterday Mr Dodds appeared to lift the threat to devolution.
"When we look at the issue of the iniquitous, immoral and deceitful on-the-runs scheme, when we look at the issues of the Parades Commission and the flying of the Union flag, what do we find they all have in common? They are the product of direct rule. It would be a travesty to suggest that the way to correct the ills of this scheme is to tear down devolution at Stormont," he stated.
On The Runs (OTRs) are people who left the UK in case they were wanted for Troubles era terrorist offenses. As part of the peace process Sinn Fein submitted names of OTRs to the government and these people were then told, in a letter, if they were still wanted. One OTR, John Downey, from Co Donegal, received a letter assuring him he was not wanted. He was facing trial accused of the Hyde Park bombing in which four soldiers died. The judge threw out the case, saying that Mr Downey was entitled to rely on the letter.