Top female judge leads inquiry into OTR letters
A senior judge who was voted Britain's eighth most powerful woman last year is to head up the Government's probe into the on-the-runs (OTRs) controversy.
But Lady Justice Heather Hallett – who acted as coroner in the deaths of the July 7, 2005 London bombings – may not be able to meet the deadline signalled by David Cameron for the end of May.
Her appointment yesterday by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers came less than a fortnight after the Prime Minister agreed to the inquiry following First Minister Peter Robinson's threat to resign, which could have led to the collapse of the Assembly and new elections.
Mrs Villiers, who has said the scheme involving former OTRs is over, also reiterated the judge's terms of reference for the review, which are:
* To produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the administrative scheme for OTRs.
* To determine whether any letters sent through the scheme contained errors.
* To make recommendations as necessary on this or related matters that are drawn to the attention of the inquiry.
Ms Villiers added: "Lady Justice Hallett is asked to make every effort to meet the timetable of conducting the inquiry and reporting to me by the end of May 2014 for the purpose of full publication.
"In any event, the review will conclude by the end of June 2014."
In February last year Lady Hallet was assessed as the eighth most powerful woman in Britain by the long-running Woman's Hour programme on BBC Radio 4.
She will be able to request to interview anyone she feels she needs to, but will not be able to compel witnesses to attend, and evidence will not be given in public.
Mr Cameron announced the probe when details of letters sent to OTRs confirming whether or not they were wanted by police for any crimes emerged after a letter, sent in error, caused an Old Bailey trial to collapse.
John Downey, who was accused of carrying out the 1982 Hyde Park bombing which killed four soldiers, walked free because he had received the written assurance that he was not a wanted man.
The 62-year-old from Co Donegal, who denied all charges against him, received his letter in 2007.
Sinn Fein has argued the letters, sent to 187 OTRs, were the result of a lawful process put in place by the Government and that their status should not be undermined.
The DUP, Ulster Unionists, Alliance and SDLP have insisted they did not know about the letters.