Furious row over arrest of John Downey in relation to soldiers' murder probe
Foster attacks Sinn Fein’s Kelly after he denounces Hyde Park suspect’s arrest
DUP leader Arlene Foster has accused Sinn Fein of being "more interested in defending the PIRA than in innocent victims" after a senior party member was arrested in relation to the murders of two soldiers.
Ms Foster was reacting to comments from Gerry Kelly MLA, who claimed the arrest of John Downey in connection with the murders of the two UDR officers in 1972 was "a gross act of bad faith" by the British Government.
The political row erupted after Downey (66) was remanded in custody in a Dublin court yesterday.
It came after he was detained by gardai on Monday evening under a European Arrest Warrant as part of a joint operation with the PSNI.
In 2013, Downey was charged with murdering four Royal Household Cavalrymen in an IRA bomb in London's Hyde Park in 1982.
He stood trial at the Old Bailey, but the case dramatically collapsed after it was revealed he had received a written assurance from former prime minister Tony Blair's government that he was not actively wanted by the authorities.
The letter was issued under the terms of the controversial On The Run (OTR) scheme.
Mrs Foster said that she hoped "all those who murdered and maimed people in the Troubles are brought to justice".
"On-the-run letters were a corruption of justice," she said.
"People who deliberately took innocent life should be held accountable for their heinous actions.
"I opposed the Belfast Agreement because it allowed the guilty to walk free whilst the innocent victims were left with empty chairs and broken hearts.
"Sinn Fein seems to be more interested in defending the PIRA than in innocent victims."
The former first minister added: "Republican lectures on 'rights' ring all the more hollow when considered against their defence of the IRA, which had no respect for the fundamental right to life."
Earlier, North Belfast MLA Mr Kelly had said the allegations against Downey had already been dealt with, and the British Government had publicly stated that he is not wanted in connection with any offence.
"This was asserted in the courts," said Mr Kelly.
"John Downey has been a supporter of the peace process over many years and to pursue his arrest and extradition now is vindictive and bad faith.
"It breaks commitments given by the British Government and is an effort to overturn the court's findings.
"It also again gives lie to claims by British Prime Minister Theresa May that the legacy process is skewed against former state forces.
"This false assertion is motivated only by a desire to secure immunity and impunity for British state forces guilty of crimes in Ireland."
But Ulster Unionist justice spokesman Doug Beattie MLA accused Mr Kelly of double standards.
"If Sinn Fein were truly signed up to the concepts of policing and justice, they would understand that the police and the courts have to be allowed to do their jobs and follow due process wherever it leads," he said.
"Sinn Fein are very quick to demand that soldiers and police officers be brought before the courts and want to see all manner of inquiries instigated, but seem to think that the law should not apply to anyone they regard as a friend or supporter.
"Unfortunately for them, that's not how justice systems work in democracies."
Downey appeared before the High Court in Dublin yesterday as prosecutors in Northern Ireland seek to extradite him to face charges of murder here.
Detective Sergeant Jim Kirwin of the Garda Extradition Unit told the Dublin court that he was on duty in Donegal when he spoke to Downey at a house in Ards, Creeslough, on Monday.
The garda officer asked Downey his name and told him that he was the subject of a European Arrest Warrant.
Downey responded that it was the "DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and not the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions)" who was pursuing the matter.
He was arrested at 7.20pm.
The officer told the court that the warrant related to three offences, including a bomb in Co Fermanagh in 1972 which killed the two UDR members.
The officer confirmed that Downey's passport has been surrendered to gardai and when asked by a prosecution barrister if he co-operated with police, the detective replied: "Fully, Judge."
Defence barrister Garnet Orange confirmed that Downey is contesting the application and is "anxious to get bail".
He added that his client suffers from a medical condition and has a heart monitor fitted. He asked the judge to consider an early date for a bail application.
Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly said she was satisfied that Downey is the person to whom the warrant related.
He was remanded in custody and will appear at the Criminal Courts of Justice on Thursday for a bail application hearing.
The extradition hearing will take place on Friday, November 23.
Justice Donnelly told Downey that he has the right to consent to surrender to the order and has a right to obtain professional legal services.
Prosecutors in Northern Ireland have decided there is sufficient evidence to prosecute him for the murders of Lance Corporal Alfred Johnston (32), a father-of-four, and Private James Eames (33), a father-of-three, in Co Fermanagh.
They died when an IRA bomb exploded in a car they were checking on the Irvinestown Road, Cherrymount, Enniskillen on August 25, 1972.
Before the trial of Downey for the Hyde Park bombing collapsed, the judge ruled that his arrest at Gatwick Airport, as he transited the UK on the way to a holiday, represented an abuse of process.
Mr Justice Sweeney put a stay on any future prosecution in relation to the Hyde Park case.
The episode sparked a government inquiry into the OTR scheme.
Mr Downey has always denied any involvement in the Hyde Park attack.
A number of supporters including three Sinn Fein TDs, Pearse Doherty, Sean Crowe and Dessie Ellis, were also in court for yesterday's proceedings.
Speaking outside court, Mr Doherty said: "In my view this arrest was wrong. It shouldn't have happened and John should be returned to his family where he has been living for the last number of decades."
He added: "It is deeply concerning that John has been arrested.
"It won't be lost on anybody that this has happened at a time when the British Government and authorities are looking for a blanket amnesty for their own soldiers given the spotlight is on them for their activities in the north."