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On-the-runs: royal pardons in Northern Ireland 'should be published in future'

Published 21/07/2015

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has repeatedly denied that letters given to republican paramilitary suspects constituted an amnesty
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has repeatedly denied that letters given to republican paramilitary suspects constituted an amnesty

Use of the royal pardon in Northern Ireland should be published in future, the Government said.

Ministers again ruled out revealing the names of paramilitaries who have already received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy (RPM) because it could jeopardise future prosecutions.

They were used in a number of terrorism-related cases to shorten prison sentences in the years immediately after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The pardon allows changes in sentences without the backing of, or consultation with, parliament.

The Government said: "In any case in future where use of the RPM is considered in Northern Ireland to grant a free pardon, the Government will take full account of the committee's recommendation and the expectation will be that such a use will be published in the Belfast Gazette."

Ministers will establish a register for current and future use of the RPM in Northern Ireland. Publishing the use of the RPM in the London Gazette for cases in England and Wales only applies where the RPM has been used to grant a free pardon - not where one has been used to shorten sentences.

The use of pardons, issued by the Queen on advice from her ministers, dates back decades.

Senior Democratic Unionists have called on the Government to name recipients involved in Northern Ireland crimes who received them. The practice was highlighted during investigations into a controversial On The Runs (OTRs) scheme.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs probed the Government's OTRs system which began when Tony Blair was prime minister and collapsed the trial of John Downey, from Co Donegal in the Irish Republic, over the murder of four soldiers during the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

OTRs is the term used to refer to people who are suspected of, but who have not been charged or convicted of, paramilitary offences during the conflict.

It was a process that involved letters being given to republican paramilitary suspects assuring them that they were not wanted by police anywhere in the UK, but not ruling out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

Mr Downey received one in error while sought by the Metropolitan Police over Hyde Park.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has repeatedly denied the letters constituted an amnesty and said they should not impede future prosecutions.

RPMs were used in 16 terrorism-related cases in the years immediately after the Good Friday Agreement to shorten sentences.

The committee published the Government's response to its report on Tuesday.

It said: "The Government has made clear its position on publishing the names of individuals who are in receipt of the RPM.

"The Government does not consider it appropriate to publish the names given the legal and privacy concerns that are present.

"There is a risk that by publishing names relating to individuals that received the RPM or letter under the OTR scheme, that this would jeopardise future prosecutions, either make them more difficult or increase the risk of an abuse of process argument being successfully run."

Danny Kinahan MP, the Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC), has said he is disappointed that the Government has indicated they will not implement a number of the key recommendations in the NIAC report.

Danny Kinahan MP said: "I am sorry to see in the Government’s response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report that some of the key recommendations will not be implemented by them.

“The Ulster Unionist Party has been clear that all steps should be taken to prevent another situation arising were a 'comfort letter' could prevent a successful prosecution.  On this matter the Government responded that a statement in the House by the Secretary of State on 9th September 2014 saying that the letters should not be relied on 'was the fairest, promptest and most effective way to reduce the risk to future prosecutions'.  For me this still leaves ambiguity as to the possibility that a letter could collapse another trial in the future.

"It is also deeply disappointing to see that the Government will not meet the recommendation to publish the names of those who received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.  The numbers of those who received the RPM were staggering and coming as they did at a time when further details of the “comfort letters” scheme were emerging dealt a blow to public confidence in the justice system and elements of the Government.

"I still believe it is important that the public know which terrorists received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.  This Government should provide the transparency that previous Governments failed to."

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