Belfast Telegraph

Judge named for on-the-runs review

A judge has been appointed to conduct an independent review of a controversial Government scheme to deal with on-the-run Irish republicans.

Lady Justice Hallett will carry out the probe, which was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron when a case against a man accused of the IRA's Hyde Park bomb collapsed because he had received a letter under the scheme saying he was not wanted by the UK authorities.

As part of a deal struck by the previous Labour government and Sinn Fein, similar letters were sent to around 190 republicans.

Lady Justice Hallett was previously appointed as the coroner who presided over the inquests into those killed in the 7/7 terror attacks in London.

Details about the assurance letters emerged two weeks ago when the case against John Downey from Co Donegal was dramatically halted at the Old Bailey.

The 62-year-old denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London's Hyde Park in 1982.

The case against him was ended because government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.

The collapse shone light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly unionists, reacting with fury and claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.

The crisis brought the Stormont Executive to the verge of collapse, with Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson threatening to resign - an ultimatum he withdrew after Mr Cameron ordered the judge-led review.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers today announced that the Government had appointed a judge to take on the task.

In a written ministerial statement to the House of Commons, Ms Villiers said: "I am today informing the House that, following consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Rt Hon Lady Justice Hallett DBE has been appointed to conduct an independent review of the administrative scheme to deal with so-called "on-the-runs" (OTRs)."

The review's terms of reference are to produce a full public account of the operation, to determine how many letters may have been sent in error or contained errors, and to produce recommendations on that or related matters.

Ms Villiers said: "Lady Justice Hallett is asked to make every effort to meet the timetable of conducting the inquiry and reporting to me by the end of May 2014, for the purpose of its full publication. In any event, the review will conclude by the end of June 2014."

The Northern Ireland Secretary last week insisted the OTR scheme was now over as far as the Government was concerned.

The process saw names of individuals passed to the authorities to check whether they were being pursued by police. If officers were not looking for them, they were sent a so-called assurance letter stating that fact.

The mistake in the Downey case resulted in him being sent a letter even though police in London wanted him for questioning.

Of around 190 republicans who received letters, 12 were issued since the coalition came to power in 2010.

Lady Hallett is the fifth woman to sit as a judge in the Court of Appeal.

In 2009 she was chosen to act as coroner in the inquest into the deaths of 52 people in the London bombings of July 7 2005 .

She was called to the Bar in 1972 and became a QC in 1989. She was made a High Court Judge in 1999 and has served in the Court of Appeal since 2005.

Lady Hallett was among five senior judges who, in February, ruled that whole life sentences "are entirely compatible" with the European Court of Human Rights, helping to ensure that the UK's most notorious serial killers die in prison.

As well as the judge-led review, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster is holding its own inquiry into the scheme, while Stormont's Justice Committee is also investigating it.

The affairs committee today set out the terms of reference for its probe.

It will focus on:

Background to, and origins of, the scheme, and what was the purpose and intended effect of the scheme;

The scheme itself, including the determination of who constitutes "on-the-runs";

The legal status and legal implications of the scheme;

Involvement by the UK Government, other governments, the Attorney General's Office, the Armed Forces, police services, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, and any others, and any advice sought by them;

Accountability to parliament about the scheme, and the political implications of the scheme;

People on the scheme;

The letters themselves, including their contents and their legal standing; can holders of such letters still be prosecuted if the relevant authorities deem such action to be appropriate?;

The Royal Prerogative of Mercy's role in the scheme;

Errors made under the scheme;

The impact of the scheme on victims and relatives;

Devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland;

The current situation regarding the scheme and OTRs;

What effect does the scheme have on existing human rights and/or equalities legislation;

The future regarding OTRs and others.

The committee has invited interested parties to submit written evidence on its inquiry before public evidence sessions commence.

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