Belfast Telegraph

Police 'acted lawfully on OTRs'

Police acted lawfully during the process of drafting letters to IRA suspects on the run, Northern Ireland's chief constable has said.

Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson has questioned the legality of parts of the political process which led to people receiving secret assurances that they were not wanted for questioning.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Matt Baggott privately briefed the Policing Board of politicians and independent members which oversees the police.

Board chairman Anne Connolly said: "The chief constable told the Board that the PSNI actions in this process were legitimate and lawful and that the PSNI do not believe the letters confer an amnesty."

Letters were sent to about 200 people by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) after a search of police records to identify if they were wanted in connection with crimes.

In John Downey's case he was sent the letter in error after the computer system failed to reveal that he was sought by the Metropolitan Police for questioning over the Hyde Park bomb.

Northern Ireland's chief constable has also pledged full PSNI co-operation in the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland investigation and the independent inquiry announced by the Prime Minister. Preparatory work has begun in support of both of these.

The Board reviewed its files for information about on-the-runs. Ms Connolly added: "It is not possible to determine from the documents held the level of detail provided to the Board and whether information on the role and work of the OTR unit was briefed to the Board.

"The first detailed record which provides substantive information on the PSNI approach to the review of information is in 2010 when questions were raised in Board public session and correspondence is received from assistant chief constable crime operations."

A police spokesman said "The chief constable Matt Baggott confirmed to the Policing Board today that the PSNI acted legitimately in carrying out their role in this process and that he would be complying fully with the judge's review and with the Police Ombudsman investigation."

Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, established after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement which largely ended the 30-year conflict, was thrown into crisis by the Downey revelations last Tuesday.

The oyster farmer, 62, from County Donegal, had pleaded not guilty to the murder of four soldiers from the Household Cavalry who died in the Hyde Park blast on 20 July 1982 along with seven of their horses.

The bomb had been concealed in a car and was detonated as the soldiers rode past on ceremonial duties.

Downey was detained in May last year at Gatwick airport en route to Greece and spent nine months in custody awaiting trial.

But he dramatically walked free after an Old Bailey judge stopped the case because a letter had been erroneously sent to him from the Government prior to his arrest saying he was not wanted by the police.

The message, which gave no guarantee that future evidence would not emerge linking him to Hyde Park, was sent as part of political talks between Sinn Fein and Tony Blair's administration linked to the consolidation of the peace process.

The revelation that many others received similar letters prompted outrage from victims of terrorism who branded them "get out of jail free" cards.

Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson said he had been kept in the dark and threatened to resign. He withdrew the threat after Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) member of the Board Jonathan Craig said the answers provided did nothing to increase knowledge or understanding of the PSNI's role in the administrative scheme.

"On the contrary, the answers provided orally were of such a standard that we have now moved to use the legislative recourses available to us to seek detailed written answers," he added.

The DUP has asked for a written report from the force.

Mr Craig added: "Many of the most pertinent and important questions have not been answered by the police."

These include queries around who devised the police's role in the process, known as Operation Rapid, for reviewing serious crime.

The DUP Stormont assembly member added: "It is vital that they are answered in as quickly a way as possible so as to restore public confidence in the administration of justice in this province.

"The DUP members of the Board will pursue to the end the disclosure of every scrap of information available on this matter."

Nationalist SDLP representative Dolores Kelly claimed the Board's role was circumvented and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) witheld information.

"Police weren't as fulsome in their information as they should be, but we are determined to get to the bottom of this," she said.

"As a public representative I am not satisfied in the answers received. It is clear that there was a shabby side deal between London and Sinn Fein, and that all roads lead back to London. "

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