Belfast Telegraph

On-the-runs: Members of parliamentary watchdog demand that suspects are named immediately

By Deborah McAleese

The 187 republican paramilitary suspects who received a controversial on-the-run letter must be named immediately, members of a parliamentary watchdog have demanded.

Security force and police intelligence have linked almost half of those individuals who were provided with so-called "comfort" letters to 295 murders.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has so far refused to publish the names, stating privacy, security and human rights issues.

Following an inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee into the "secretive" scheme, a number of members have insisted, however, that the names of those sent one of the letters telling them they were not wanted by police, be published with immediate effect.

"It was felt that naming the individuals would go some way towards restoring faith in the justice system where it may have been lost due to the way in which the administrative scheme was run," the inquiry report, released yesterday, said.

The OTR scheme, which was the result of negotiations between Sinn Fein and the Blair government in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, only came to light in February 2014 following the collapse of the trial of alleged Hyde Park bomber John Downey.

Downey was one of the republicans to be given a letter. Even though it was sent to him by mistake, a judge ruled that it would be an abuse of process for him to stand trial for four murders in the 1982 Hyde Park attack.

The parliamentary watchdog said that the "one-sided, secretive scheme of letters" should never have existed. It also raised questions over the lawfulness of the scheme and recommended that the Northern Ireland Office provides appropriate funds to ensure a police review of all those who received letters can be undertaken swiftly.

The inquiry said that the administrative scheme for OTRs remained "largely invisible" for 14 years and that "damage has undoubtedly been done to public confidence in the criminal justice system".

The situation of OTRs was not discussed during the Belfast Agreement, the report stated. In 1999, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams raised the issue with then Prime Minister Tony Blair and the party continued to put pressure on the Government.

"It is clear that Sinn Fein pushed for OTRs to be dealt with at the highest level and that promises were made by the Prime Minister as a result of the pressure... Tony Blair put in much effort to ensure those promises were fulfilled, but did so without telling other Northern Ireland party leaders about the exact nature of the administrative scheme," the report said.

Concern was also raised over the role of the Irish government.

By the end of the scheme a total of 228 names had been put forward. Of those, 187 were deemed free to return.

Initially Sinn Fein put forward the names of supporters who were "strong advocates of the peace process and were key individuals in the Sinn Fein hierarchy".

The report added: "It is clear, however, that as the scheme matured, Sinn Fein increasingly put forward names from a broader group of people and not just those who could contribute to the peace process. We have not seen conclusive evidence that convinces us to believe that all 228 on the list were so essential to the peace process and vital to its survival of that process that they were allowed to return to Northern Ireland."

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