Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

Former IRA man John Downey: A disgraceful, squalid deal that leaves justice lying in the gutter

John Downey at the Old Bailey
John Downey at the Old Bailey

On one level the case of John Downey is a huge embarrassment to the PSNI. The former IRA man will not be prosecuted on charges of killing four soldiers in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing in London because he was wrongly given a letter guaranteeing him that he would not have to stand trial.

Police here had told him that he was not wanted on any charges by any police force in the UK, even though there were outstanding warrants from the Metropolitan Police.

But that is only one part of the story and not the most important one.

What we now know from this case is that 187 former IRA members, known as On The Runs, were given similar assurances in a deal negotiated between Sinn Fein and the Labour Government to enable the peace process to be bedded down.

This was done without any public debate or even notification and means that those people cannot be held accountable for any past crimes.

Little wonder that the relatives of the soldiers killed in Hyde Park are outraged by the Downey case.

While he denied the charges, it meant that the outrage could not be properly examined in court and the evidence weighed.

Under the Good Friday Agreement even if Mr Downey had been convicted he would not have had to serve more than two years in jail, yet at least the bereaved would have felt some sense of justice being done.

It reflects badly on the Blair government of the day that this deal for On The Runs was done behind closed doors without any consideration to the feelings of bereaved relatives hoping to find out how, why and by whom their loved ones died.

Yes the pursuit of peace was a major consideration, but this case again brings into stark relief the problem of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

Previous attempts to address these legacy issues by Eames-Bradley and more recently by Richard Haass have come to naught, but the unfortunate consequence is that cases like this one will continue to come back to haunt us.

We cannot keep postponing this issue because that is unfair to those who suffered the most grievous losses and merely leads to further political bickering.

The judge in the Downey case said holding the state to account for promises given far outweighed the public interest in proceeding with a prosecution.

That is a point which the bereaved will find hard to accept, but that is the legacy that politicians have bequeathed to them by this nod and a wink agreement between a previous administration and the republican movement.

As a result there are 187 former republicans who will never face justice, their safety from prosecution secured by a letter which, disgracefully, the public never knew existed until now.

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