Belfast Telegraph

OTR scheme 'distorted legal system'

The legal system in the UK was damaged and distorted by a controversial Government scheme that issued letters of comfort to on-the-run (OTR) Irish republicans, a Westminster committee inquiry has found.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee questioned the lawfulness of the administrative process that saw almost 190 individuals obtain a document assuring them they could return to the UK without fear of arrest as, at the time of sending, there was insufficient evidence to prosecute them.

The little-known mechanism, which was set up in 2000 and ran for around 12 years, was exposed to intense public scrutiny last year when the prosecution of Co Donegal man John Downey over murdering four soldiers in the IRA's Hyde Park bombing collapsed after it emerged he had been sent one of the letters in error, when in fact police in London were actively seeking him.

A judge-led review of the OTR scheme, ordered by the current Government in the wake of the court judgement, concluded last July that a "catastrophic" error had been made in the Downey case. But while Lady Justice Heather Hallett's probe found the scheme was systematically flawed in operation, she said it was not unlawful in principle.

The select committee's separate inquiry, published today, is less certain about its lawfulness.

The report stated: "It is questionable whether the 'on-the-runs' (OTR) scheme was lawful or not, but we believe its existence distorted the legal process. We accept that there was a difficult peace process going on at the time, but believe that there still has to be transparency and accountability in government and in the legal process."

It further claimed that "damage has undoubtedly been done to public confidence in the criminal justice system".

The committee, which took evidence from 55 witnesses, including former prime minister Tony Blair, was also critical of the state's decision not to appeal the Downey judgement last February, expressing concern the judge's stay on the prosecution had placed preserving the integrity of the criminal justice system above the public interest involved in continuing the trial of someone accused of carrying out multiple murders. Downey, 63, has always denied involvement in the 1982 attack.

A number of committee members also questioned the Government's refusal - on security and legal grounds - to publish the names of all those in receipt of OTR letters, while the report also branded "wholly unacceptable" the Government's failure to make public those already charged or convicted individuals who obtained Royal Prerogatives of Mercy during the peace process.

The committee, which described the scheme as "one-sided and secretive", called for all steps to be taken to render the letters null and void, potentially in the form of legislation, and urged the Government to divert extra funds to a police unit in Northern Ireland re-examining the evidence in all the cases.

Committee chair Laurence Robertson MP said: "If any scheme had been put in place at all, which is questionable, it should have been properly introduced and correctly administered. It also should have been open and transparent. This scheme was none of those things.

"Regardless of the intentions, this scheme has caused further hurt to people who have suffered far too much already, and has led to further suspicions being raised."

In total, 228 individuals applied for letters of comfort, with 187 successful in obtaining one. In the unsuccessful cases, the authorities decided there was sufficient evidence against the individual to arrest them if they returned to the UK.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and a number of her predecessors, both Labour and Conservative, told committee hearings the letters were merely factual statements, reflecting the evidential situation at a point in time, and did not confer immunity in circumstances where new evidence came to light.

Following the Hallett report, the Government announced that it was no longer prepared to stand over even the factual accuracy of the letters, given the error in evidence assessment in Downey's case, and warned recipients they should no longer draw comfort from them.

In response to today's committee report, the Government repeated that warning. A spokeswoman for the Northern Ireland Office said that approach was "preferable" to fresh legislation.

Responding to the call for extra funding to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland's re-examination of the cases, the Government noted that it had made available £150 million to fund new legacy mechanisms agreed in the Stormont House political agreement.

The spokeswoman added: "However, it is primarily for the Executive to ensure that the PSNI are sufficiently resourced to undertake their duties."

On the demand to publish the names of the letter recipients and those granted Royal Prerogatives of Mercy, the Government said it still believed that to be "inappropriate".

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly branded the inquiry a "politically driven" exercise carried out by a committee whose members all opposed his party.

"This was a set up as a political attack on Sinn Fein so it doesn't surprise me that's what it turns out to be," he said.

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