Secret letters 'not immunity'
Secret letters sent to on-the-run suspects in Northern Ireland did not amount to "immunity, exemption or amnesty from arrest", the Government insisted today.
Northern Ireland spokeswoman Baroness Randerson told the Lords: "They were not letters of comfort. They were factual statements."
She said: "No recipient of such a letter should be in any doubt that if evidence emerges after the date the letter was issued in connection with terrorist offences committed before the Belfast agreement, they will be liable for arrest and prosecution."
But former Ulster Unionist now independent crossbencher Lord Maginnis of Drumglass denounced her comments as "pie in the sky".
He said the reality was that these people were now "free to come back without interference from the police".
Lady Randerson denied this, saying the historical inquiries team was looking assiduously at a number of cases.
She said the whole process would be examined by the inquiry announced by the Prime Minister last week after the letters became known about.
Messages sent to about 200 IRA on the runs informed them that they were not wanted by police.
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) scheme emerged during the collapse of the trial of alleged Hyde Park bomber John Downey after police mistakenly sent him one of the letters even though he was sought by the Metropolitan Police.
Lady Randerson said that in coming to office in 2010 the coalition government was made aware of a list of names submitted by Sinn Fein to the previous government under an agreement they had reached to clarify the status of on-the-runs.
Asked why such a scheme did not extend to loyalists, she said: "It is my understanding that there had been no request for a similar scheme."
Under the scheme if it was found the person was not wanted by police and there was no prospect of any prosecution based on evidence available the individuals were informed of that by letter.
"The letters did not amount to immunity, exemption or amnesty from arrest."
Lady Randerson said that on the basis that these were simply factual letters, the current government agreed the list of names submitted by Sinn Fein to the previous government could "continue to be checked".
The Government would take whatever steps were necessary to make clear that any letters issued could not be relied on to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence became available now or later.
Her comments came in third reading debate on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill as the secret letters came under fire from all sides of the House.
Lord Maginnis hit out at "secret deals" which were not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the victims of the Troubles.
He said the deals were carried out for "one little caucus within one section of our society" and were "dishonourable in the extreme".
Former Ulster Unionist leader now Tory peer Lord Trimble said the whole exercise was "misconceived" and shouldn't have been undertaken.
Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams wanted it kept secret because it "existed for the benefit of the IRA only".
Lord Trimble said: "I feel particularly ashamed that it continued after 2010 so that our Conservative ministers, we engaged in it.
"I'm very disappointed it didn't occur to ministers to say this is something which we shouldn't have anything to do with."
Independent crossbencher Baroness O'Loan warned that the "crisis in the justice system" reached right across the community in Northern Ireland and had introduced a "sense of distrust".
She said the scheme amounted to a "betrayal of the people".
Tory former Northern Ireland minister Lord Mawhinney criticised the role of Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain saying the most diplomatic way he could put it was that he was "disappointed" in him.
"To argue that because people understood there was a problem about on-the-runs meant everybody knew exactly what was happening was disingenuous.
"People knew there was a problem. People did not know what the solution to that problem was."
Lord Mawhinney said some ministers had had to say `yes' to the process and no one had said who they were.
"I don't want to hear anything more about it being only a bureaucratic activity or an administrative process.
"That's not the constitutional way the British Government operates. So let's come clean," he added.
Lord Eames, independent crossbencher and former Primate of All Ireland, said events of the last few days had shattered trust, raising "questions about misleading, questions about lies".
He said of course there was a price to pay for peace but there was a limit to the way in which "the elastic of public trust can be pushed or pulled".