Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley: On-the-run probe refusal fuels fears of cover-up

By Michael McHugh

A government official's refusal to appear before a probe into the on-the-runs (OTRs) scheme for fugitive IRA members will fuel fears of a cover-up, an MP said.

An NIO civil servant who signed a letter that led to the collapse of the IRA Hyde Park bombing prosecution is not expected to give evidence to the department's scrutiny committee today - despite being officially summoned, members of the scrutiny body said.

Under the last Labour government the NIO ran a scheme formulated at the request of Sinn Fein which saw about 200 letters sent to republicans assuring them they were not being pursued by the UK authorities.

Committee member Ian Paisley, MP for North Antrim, said the wrangle over grilling the official had set up a battle between Parliament and government.

He said the public wanted reassurance about official openness and appealed for the official and a colleague, who were involved in running the scheme under ministerial direction, to come forward.

He added: "Those officials will only add fuel to flames that there is a conspiracy by the Northern Ireland Office to conceal something or someone or some action."

The committee launched its investigation after John Downey was released last year. A judge halted his prosecution over the murders of four soldiers in 1982 after it was found he had received one of the letters in error.

The senior civil servant at the NIO, permanent secretary Sir Jonathan Stevens, said an official report into the affair commissioned by the Prime Minister and chaired by a senior judge had not criticised individuals from his department and added fears of a cover-up had been addressed.

"This was one of the reasons why the Secretary of State asked a Lord Justice of Appeal to undertake full consideration of the issues," he said.

He said one of the skills of Lady Justice Hallett, who carried out a review of the OTR affair, was examining evidence. "Hallett did not criticise any named official in the NIO, I would hope that would be reassurance that there is not a conspiracy to hide," he said.

He said there was a dilemma for officials between a summons to an individual and the fact that he was only able to appear on behalf of a minister. He said the NIO was acting on information provided by others.

"Clearly the letter was sent in error, Mr Downey should not have received that," he said.

Belfast Telegraph


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