The Belfast Telegraph today publishes the first documented evidence that Royal pardons were granted to on-the-run prisoners.
The document obtained by this paper, which bears a Royal crest, relates to a republican who escaped from Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast in 1981.
In the name of Her Majesty The Queen it states that the republican is pardoned and remitted from a sentence of imprisonment imposed on him.
Tyrone republican Gerry McGeough, who is currently on trial charged with IRA membership and the attempted murder of a UDR soldier, has released the document.
McGeough’s legal team have claimed that it proves there is “incontrovertible evidence that pardons were granted” and believe it raises questions over his prosecution.
The document could also be embarrassing for Secretary of State Shaun Woodward who recently dismissed claims that there had been a deal over on-the-runs as “complete nonsense”.
He was responding to claims from McGeough that 47 of the 216 on-the-runs were told they could return to Northern Ireland.
A Northern Ireland Office spokesman last night told this paper that the document does not constitute a pardon but was issued to “resolve technical anomalies” surrounding the early release scheme which followed the Good Friday Agreement.
The document, dated December 24 2000 states: “This is to certify that Her Majesty The Queen has been pleased to extend Her Grace and Mercy unto (name removed) and to pardon and remit to him the unserved portion of all the fixed term sentences of imprisonment imposed on him at Belfast on 12 June 1981.
“He is therefore deemed to have served all the said sentences in full and is, accordingly, no longer unlawfully at large in respect of them.”
McGeough’s solicitor Peter Corrigan told the Belfast Telegraph: “The secretary of state publicly announced that there were no pardons in relation to the on-the-runs.
“There’s clearly now incontrovertible evidence that pardons were granted and we want to know why then is Gerard McGeough being prosecuted and others haven’t.”
He said he now wants to see “all material relating to all deals, and that includes all pardons”.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said: “None of these people have been pardoned for the offences they committed.
“The Royal Prerogative of Mercy was used in a small number of cases between 2000 and 2002 to resolve technical anomalies that arose under the Early Release Scheme set up following the Belfast Agreement.
“In all these cases, the RPM has been used to remit all or part of a prison sentence.”
In 2000 it was widely reported that four IRA prisoners who escaped from the Crumlin Road jail had been given special dispensation by The Queen to return to Northern Ireland.
Peter Corrigan has also met loyalist William ‘Plum’ Smith to discuss claims he made to this paper last week about an undeclared amnesty dating back to the Good Friday Agreement — that anyone involved in the conflict prior to 1998 would not be prosecuted.
Smith claimed this covered loyalists, republicans and members of the security forces and that a “clear understanding” was endorsed by then secretary of state Mo Mowlam on behalf of the government.
“We intend to take a statement from Mr Smith with a view to giving evidence at the Gerard McGeough trial,” solicitor Mr Corrigan said.
He met the Shankill loyalist in Belfast on Wednesday to discuss the matter.
Contacted by the Telegraph, Mr Smith said: ”I am now considering the situation as this is an issue that is crucial to many people throughout the country.”
Gerry McGeough is charged with IRA membership in 1975 and the attempted murder of a UDR soldier dating back to 1981.
Factfile: Royal pardons
In the British legal tradition the Prerogative of Mercy is one of the historic Royal Prerogatives of the British monarch in which he or she can grant pardons to convicted persons. In practice, this power has been delegated to the Home Office or the Northern Ireland Office.
The Royal Prerogative of Mercy was originally used to permit the monarch to withdraw death sentences, but is now used to change any sentence or penalty.
The most famous example is teenager Derek Bentley who was hanged for murder in England in 1953 and pardoned 40 years later.