Demand issued to stop active cases
The British government has been challenged to immediately stop consideration of five active cases involving on-the-run IRA terror suspects who have asked for assurances they are not wanted by police.
A Stormont minister issued the demand during a fiery emergency meeting of the devolved legislature in Belfast, called to debate the continuing controversy over a deal the last Labour government struck with Sinn Fein that saw more than 180 individuals issued with letters making clear they could return to the UK because the authorities were not seeking them.
While the majority of the cases were dealt with under the last government, almost 40 outstanding applications were taken on by the coalition government when it assumed power in 2010.
It has emerged that five cases apparently remain outstanding, with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) understood to be still deliberating on whether those applicants should receive a letter.
Addressing a packed chamber at the conclusion of an ill-tempered and rancorous debate at Parliament Buildings, Democratic Unionist Economy Minister Arlene Foster first directed a pointed message to Sinn Fein.
"They have always had a cavalier attitude to the rule of law but they need not underestimate our continuing determination to rebuild confidence and that must start, I have to say Mr Speaker, with the five cases we have learnt of this morning."
Mrs Foster then delivered a stark ultimatum to the NIO regarding the cases.
"They must immediately go, they have to be stopped immediately - I think that will be a mark of how this issue goes forward and we will be asking that question of the secretary of state (Theresa Villiers) very, very quickly.
"I make it very clear from this House that we are not just dealing with the past, as we have learnt this morning, we are also dealing with the here and now in relation to this system."
Asked about the five cases, the NIO said it would not be commenting in detail on the OTRs scheme due to the forthcoming judge-led review of the system, which was announced by British prime minister David Cameron on Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the NIO said: "The review will produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the OTRs scheme. It is important now that we let this inquiry run its course."
The five cases were brought to light by Stormont Justice Minister who said he had been informed of their existence by a "senior NIO official" this morning.
Details of 180-plus letters sent to OTRs emerged when the case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed.
John Downey, 62, from Donegal, denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London.
The case against him was ended because government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.
But the collapse shone light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland reacting with fury, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.
There is a degree of confusion as to when the five cases came to the attention of the NIO. Mr Ford said it was his understanding from his discussion with the NIO official that they came to light in "late 2012", but that runs contrary to the NIO's official position that the only cases it has dealt with were lodged prior to the 2010 general election.
The Assembly was recalled for the additional sitting following a request by DUP First Minister Peter Robinson at the height of this week's political crisis over the scheme.
When Mr Robinson made the announcement on Wednesday, shortly after he had threatened to resign over the issue, there were fears the future of the power-sharing executive would be on the line during today's plenary session.
Those concerns receded last night when he withdrew his ultimatum in response to Mr Cameron's announcement on the review.
However, the two hour debate was still extremely fractious, with Speaker Willie Hay forced to call for order on numerous occasions as members exchanged brickbats across the chamber.
The DUP claimed assurances it has received from the British government yesterday about the status of the letters already issued had rendered them effectively "worthless".
But Sinn Fein has rejected that analysis, with the party's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness insisting "nothing could be further from the truth".
Mr McGuinness has claimed the letters were nothing more than official confirmation from the authorities that there was no evidence linking individuals to offences, and not in any way an amnesty. He claims the fact other republicans were denied letters - and told they would be arrested if they entered the UK - proves his point.
The Sinn Fein veteran today insisted rival politicians at Stormont have been aware of the OTR scheme for a long time - noting references to it in a number of public forums, reports and publications in recent years - and further claimed the angry reaction to the issue this week had been "contrived" to deflect the public away from that fact.
During the debate, in which a DUP motion condemning the scheme expectedly passed with only Sinn Fein opposition, Mr McGuinness accused unionists of irresponsibly threatening the stability of power-sharing.
He claimed the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were in the thrall of loyalist extremists and insisted the recall of the Assembly was more about political posturing ahead of forthcoming elections.
"I am frustrated that the stability of these institutions have been irresponsibly threatened this week and a sense of crisis has replaced the much-needed focus that we needed to get agreement on issues relating to the past," he said.
"I am frustrated that those historically opposed to the peace process and to power-sharing are being allowed to chip away at the process by using legacy issues as a vehicle to pursue their negative and rejectionist agenda."
He added: "I am frustrated that those extreme loyalists shape the behaviour of the two main unionist parties."
Mr McGuinness continued "I am frustrated we are here today discussing a motion which is as irresponsible as the threat to collapse this Assembly.
"Today's recall and motion is about the upcoming election and about the political posturing within unionism. Frankly, I believe the people out there deserve better."
The Deputy First Minister said the peace process had been built by politicians showing leadership.
"At many times throughout this process I could have walked away, I could have threatened to resign. I have not done that," he said.
"I have sought solutions and agreement and we have progressed to where we are today because of those agreements. The peace and political process needs (to be) defended, protected and promoted by all political leaders - it certainly does not need to be threatened."