Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

First John Downey - now second IRA court case could collapse over OTR comfort note

Exclusive: Man facing murder bid charge after PSNI claim they’ve fresh evidence

Hyde Park bomb suspect John Downey
Hyde Park bomb suspect John Downey
Maze prison escapee James Smyth
Maze prison escapee James Smyth

A suspected IRA gunman is claiming a murder bid charge against him should be dropped because he has a ‘comfort letter’ from the Government.

Mick Burns, 66, stands accused of trying to kill an off-duty prison officer in north Belfast in 1977.

But he is challenging the case, claiming he was issued with a written assurance in 2003 that he was not wanted for arrest.

The court battle — which has striking parallels with the John Downey case - looks set to test government claims that the letters are worthless if new evidence is discovered.

Police claim that Burns was shot when the prison officer returned fire on two gunmen who ambushed him at his Oldpark Avenue home.

Another gunman was caught at the scene — IRA man Jimmy Smith who later made international headlines as a Maze escaper who fled to San Francisco, California. Smyth was extradited back to the UK in 1996 following a legal battle which sparked a political row on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now, 37 years after the Oldpark Avenue shooting, the case against Mick Burns has become embroiled in the political row over ‘comfort letters’.

Police say that DNA taken from a motorcycle helmet found at the scene links Burns to the murder attempt on the jailer.

Burns is also accused of possessing a revolver and quantity of bullets with intent to endanger life, to the attack.

The frail pensioner, who is battling cancer, declined to talk about his comfort letter when we called to his flat in the Cliftonville area of the city on Friday.

“I don't want to speak about my case because it is still ongoing,” he said.

The issuing of a comfort letter to Burns was raised at a High Court hearing in Dublin in April.

The Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service was seeking access to medical reports concerning the veteran republican's time in Portlaoise Prison.

Opposing the move, Burns's solicitor, Michael Finucane, said his client had received assurances from the British government that he was not wanted for arrest, questioning or charge by the PSNI.

Mr Finucane then told the court that Burns had received a letter in 2003 confirming he was free to return to Northern Ireland to live without fear of arrest.

Sinn Fein yesterday insisted he should not be prosecuted.

A spokesman said: “Sinn Féin was involved in a legal and confidential process which dealt with the legacy issue of on-the-runs.

“Sinn Féin continues to support and work with Mick Burns and his family and friends in his legal challenge to what is in our view a derogation from the Weston Park commitments.”

More than 220 names were put forward to the government between 2000 and 2014, with 156 receiving letters of assurance.

A team of PSNI detectives is now reviewing all the cases, but the process could take years.

On Friday, Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said fresh evidence had been found in “less than 10 cases” and these would be forwarded to the Public Prosecution Service.

A spokesperson for the PPS told Sunday Life: “PPS is in receipt of two live files from PSNI with respect to on-the-runs. In one of these cases a decision to prosecute has been taken and it is currently before the courts and the other is under active consideration.

“We are aware of a number of on-going police investigations and inquiries in relation to the OTRs and expect further papers may be submitted to this office in due course.”

Last night, DUP MP Ian Paisley said: “The Government has said in parliament that it will take any steps necessary to ensure that no letter will act as a barrier to justice.

“We will be holding them to account on this pledge.”

Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott said that the case would be a major tests for the process.

“We want all the letters rescinded,” he said.

On Thursday, Lady Justice Hallett published her findings that the scheme, although “lawful” and not an amnesty, had “significant systematic failures” in how it was operated.

Her inquiry was launched after the prosecution against John Downey for the IRA’s Hyde Park murders in 1982 collapsed because he had wrongly been issued with a comfort letter in 2007 saying he was not wanted.

Mick Burns first appeared in Belfast Magistrates' Court in April last year when it was alleged that he refused to comment during 15 police interviews.

Opposing bail a PSNI detective expressed fears that the pensioner, who was revealed to have served time at Portlaoise prison, could “abscond again”.

A defence solicitor outlined how Burns suffered from serious medical conditions including lung disease and blood disorders.

He also claimed that Burns had been “living openly” in Northern Ireland for the last 15 years. He was freed on bail and told to report to police daily, surrender his passport, and not to have any contact with other “ASU” (Active Service Unit) individuals who were named during his police interviews.

Further reading:

On-the-runs 'facing prosecution' warns Peter Robinson

McDowell urged IRA suspects pardon

Hallett Review: Dealing with past needs a new process

On-the-runs: A grubby deal and a shambles, but not a secret

On-the-runs: 10 key points ...and what the report had to say about them

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