IRA Hyde Park bomb suspect: Matt Baggott 'sorry' as John Downey walks free after police blunder
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has been forced to issue a grovelling apology after a "monumental" blunder by his force led to an 'on the run' terrorist walking free from the Old Bailey.
The finding by Mr Justice Sweeney that an official assurance given in error meant John Downey (62) could not be prosecuted over the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing when four soldiers died.
This has now stirred up a hornets' nest over whether letters sent to 187 'on the runs' after a deal between the British Government and Sinn Fein are effectively "get out of jail free" cards.
Mr Baggott yesterday said the PSNI accepts the court's decision and takes full responsibility for the failure which resulted in this outcome.
He said the matter will be referred to the Police Ombudsman and the force is checking other cases to ensure similar errors have not occurred.
The Chief Constable also apologised to the families of the victims and survivors of the Hyde Park atrocity.
President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, who was PSNI chief constable at the time of the error, revealed yesterday that a "crucial oversight was made by a senior officer which resulted in erroneous information being sent to Mr Downey by the Northern Ireland Office and thus prejudicing the current indictment".
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said the mistake was a "matter of sadness and regret", adding that the PSNI should reflect on "the serious error".
Unionists have reacted with fury.
First Minister Peter Robinson said the letters are a "get out of jail free card".
"This conclusion is an outrage and a dark day for justice in the United Kingdom.
"It is little wonder that some have lost faith in our justice system," he said, claiming that the letters originated from the Weston Park talks.
"At that time, though a smaller party, we warned the then unionist leadership that this type of deal was being concocted behind their back.
"Whilst there is no suggestion that the UUP was complicit in such an arrangement, we suspected that (Tony) Blair and others in the NIO had made a dirty deal at that time with Sinn Fein," he said.
Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott said the situation was a "disgrace".
Sinn Fein has insisted that Downey should never have been arrested in the first place and accused the British government of reneging on a deal.
Convicted IRA member Downey received his "letter of assurance" from police in Northern Ireland in 2007, despite the Metropolitan Police having a warrant against him.
Despite regularly travelling to the UK and Northern Ireland since then, last May he was arrested at Gatwick Airport, en route to Greece, and charged.
He "strenuously" denied the murder of the four soldiers and causing an explosion.
Mr Justice Sweeney threw the case out after Downey's lawyer successfully argued at the 11th hour that the defendant should not go on trial at the Old Bailey.
Yesterday, the Crown announced that it would not appeal against the decision.
At an earlier hearing, Henry Blaxland QC warned of the political ramifications in Northern Ireland of pursuing a trial against Downey in such circumstances, saying the false assurance he received was "not just negligent, it was downright reckless".
In his judgment, Mr Justice Sweeney said there were "very particular circumstances" of the case.
The public interest in prosecution was "very significantly outweighed" by the public interest in ensuring that "executive misconduct does not disrepute", and in "holding officials of the state to promises they have made in the full understanding of what is involved in the bargain".
The legal wrangle raised questions with the Police Service of Northern Ireland which, the court heard, knew about the UK arrest warrant for Downey but did nothing to correct the error of 2007.
Afterwards, relatives of the four soldiers said: "It is with great sadness and bitter disappointment that we have received the full and detailed judgment and that a trial will now not take place.
"This news has left us all feeling devastatingly let down, even more so when the monumental blunder behind this judgment lies at the feet of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)."
The Hyde Park bomb on July 20, 1982 killed four soldiers – Roy Bright, Dennis Daly, Simon Tipper and Jeffrey Young – as they rode through Hyde Park in central London to the changing of the guard.