Belfast Telegraph

Letters 'not amnesties' - Flanagan

A former chief constable who led police in Northern Ireland when the Government first started issuing controversial letters of assurance to fugitive republicans has insisted they were not amnesties.

Sir Ronnie Flanagan was giving evidence to a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into the contentious on-the-run (OTR) administrative process, agreed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government, which ultimately saw letters sent to around 190 republicans informing them they were not being sought by the authorities in the UK.

The region's former top officer said he was confident the process did not allow people to evade justice and merely provided notification from police that, at that specific point in time, there was not sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution. He insisted that if new evidence came to light the letters would not have been a "barrier" to pursuing the individuals who had received them.

Asked whether people in other circumstances could ring up the police and ask if they were wanted, Sir Ronnie claimed the political context at the time, which had also seen the early release of paramilitary prisoners, meant that a "completely normal situation" did not apply.

But he added: "I certainly would never have been engaged in a process that would have allowed anyone to escape justice or evade justice."

Sir Ronnie was also adamant no political pressure was exerted on him to ensure certain individuals were not pursued.

"I wouldn't have tolerated it for a second," he said.

Details of the OTR scheme, which started running in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, emerged after the collapse of a case against a man accused of the IRA's Hyde Park bomb in 1982 - an attack that killed four soldiers.

The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, over the Hyde Park outrage was halted in February after a judge found he had been wrongly sent one of the so-called letters of comfort, when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him. Downey denied involvement in the attack.

Police in Northern Ireland have been heavily criticised for their handling of the case. Halting the prosecution at the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Sweeney said sending the letter to Downey had been a ''catastrophic'' mistake.

Downey was processed through the scheme years after Sir Ronnie left his job as chief constable in 2002 and when pressed during the committee hearing to comment on the outcome of that case he conceded he had not read the judgement.

Instead his evidence centred on the formative years of the OTR scheme.

Sir Ronnie, who went on to become Home Office Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said while he understood the scheme became more formalised after his departure from the PSNI, during his tenure it involved police answering questions from the Director of Public Prosecutions on certain named individuals.

"If we were given the name of an individual and considered all of the intelligence, if there was any that we held about that individual, (and) whether there was any evidence - fingerprint, DNA, witness, physical evidence or anything else. If after an examination of all of that we had no grounds for arresting a person whatever - in other words it would have almost in such circumstances have been unlawful to have arrested a person - if we arrived at that conclusion I personally would have had no objection to such a person being told that at that particular point in time there would be no basis on which they would be (arrested), I would have no difficulty with that."

Sir Ronnie, who said he never actually saw the wording of the letters issued by the Government, made clear that saying he had "no problem" with the information being relayed did not equate to him being comfortable with the process, stressing that victims of the Troubles "mean everything" to him.

Rita O'Hare, a fugitive in the US and senior Sinn Fein member, was among three names initially submitted as candidates for receiving letters. She did not get one.

Kevin McGinty, deputy head of the Attorney General's office in England and Wales which advises the Government, told the committee: "The evidential test the last I heard was still met."

The Belfast woman had been shot and seriously injured in a 1971 incident which led to her being charged with the attempted murder of a soldier in Belfast. After being granted bail she fled south to the Irish Republic. In the 1970s she served three years in prison in the Republic of Ireland for attempting to smuggle material into a jail holding IRA prisoners.

An attempt to extradite her back to Northern Ireland subsequently failed. She has been prominent in the United States, where she spends much of her time heading up the Sinn Fein presence in Washington DC.

After her case another 35 names were submitted to the Government by Sinn Fein for consideration.

Mr McGinty said: "It was not something that anybody welcomed."

He said it was accepted with some reluctance but added the independence of the prosecution service did not meant that government did not have an interest in what happened.

But he observed: "It was dangerous for the criminal justice, it was damaging to the criminal justice system."

He paid tribute to the former director of public prosecutions in Northern Ireland, Sir Alasdair Fraser, who died in 2012.

"Alasdair Fraser spent his life trying to ensure the way in which he dealt with cases which came before him in Northern Ireland were dealt with with an absolutely even-handed approach."

He said it was a very "unusual" process.

"It was not a normal process to assess evidence in the absence of the individual and it is not normal to tell people whether they are in fact wanted or not wanted."

As well as the committee investigation into the on-the-run scheme, a judge is conducting another review.

The inquiry headed by Lady Justice Heather Hallett, which was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron, is due to report in the summer.

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