Change law on intercept evidence, says Paul Murphy
Allowing the use of intelligence intercept evidence in UK courts would have led to many murder suspects in Northern Ireland being prosecuted, a former Secretary of State has said.
The best-known form of intercepted intelligence is the phone tap, although mobile phones, post, emails, text messages and internet calls can also be accessed – but not used in court as evidence.
Paul Murphy expressed his support for a change in the law as he gave evidence to a Westminster committee investigating Government letters of assurance sent to fugitive republicans informing them they were not wanted by the UK authorities.
In a previous evidence hearing of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's inquiry, a senior police commander told MPs that 95 of the people sent letters were linked, by intelligence, to 295 murders during the Troubles.
During yesterday's session Mr Murphy, who was Northern Ireland Secretary from 2002 to 2005, was asked for his view of those intelligence links.
"So long as this country will not allow the use of intercept as evidence in court then it's not evidence," he said. "Now my own personal view, which I expressed when I was chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (at Westminster), was it should be allowed because the times that I have read names, right across the spectrum in Northern Ireland, of people who had done terrible things but couldn't be prosecuted because there was no evidence allowable, was very often very distressing and I would often ask the question: 'Why on Earth can't we prosecute this person?'.
"And we couldn't, because the evidence gathered in the way it was could not be used in courts.
"Which is why I say I think it is wrong not to be able to use intercept, which most countries can."
The committee launched the inquiry into the letters scheme in the wake of the high-profile collapse of the case against a man accused of murdering four soldiers in the IRA's 1982 Hyde Park bomb.
Mr Murphy described the events that led to John Downey being sent a letter as a "monumental cock-up". He told MPs that as it was designed as a purely administrative process it was not considered a matter of high priority.
But he said if a letter was sent in error "then we have all the enormous consequences of that mistake, where trials are not held, victims are obviously in a terrible state over it, and the general public are very, very concerned about it".