Belfast Telegraph

Matt Baggott is accused of ducking key questions on OTR scheme

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

Senior police officers have been accused of ducking key questions regarding the handling of the on-the-run letters scheme during an angry behind-closed-doors meeting.

An emergency meeting of the Policing Board took place yesterday during which members pressed officers, including Chief Constable Matt Baggott, on the controversy.

Tempers flared as members voiced their fury over police involvement in the secret deals with 187 republican terror suspects.

SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly said police claimed not to have known about the letters until last May.

One of those present told the Belfast Telegraph the atmosphere was tense during the highly-charged exchanges.

"It was hot and heavy," they said. "I went in angry and came out more so.

"In my opinion there was a complete lack of clarity on what is a very one-sided process.

"It's fair to say those taking the questions were all over the place. They had no explanations. It fed into the conspiracy of silence."

Last week Mr Baggott apologised following the collapse of the trial of alleged IRA Hyde Park bomber John Downey.

The murder trial was thrown out after it emerged Downey – accused of killing four soldiers – was wrongly sent one of the letters telling him he was not being pursued by police.

DUP MLA Jonathan Craig echoed the frustrations of his fellow board member following yesterday's meeting.

He said his party had submitted a request to trigger legislation compelling Mr Baggott to produce a written report on the OTR letters.

"The answers provided in today's meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board did nothing to increase knowledge or understanding of the role of the PSNI in the OTR administrative scheme," he added.

"The DUP members of the board will pursue to the end the disclosure of every scrap of information available on this matter."

Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey added: "The question remains as to why would 187 innocent people seek confirmation they are not being sought?"

Mr Baggott told the Policing Board meeting the PSNI acted lawfully when participating in the scheme regarding on-the-runs. He rejected claims the letters provided an amnesty.

Meanwhile, the prospect of former Prime Minister Tony Blair being held to account over the on-the-run letters scandal moved a step closer as a parliamentary inquiry into the fiasco was unanimously given the go-ahead by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee for the move.

Unlike the judge-led inquiry announced by Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers last week, it will have the power to compel any witnesses it calls to give evidence.

The chair of the powerful committee, Laurence Robertson, has already confirmed former Prime Minister Tony Blair is among those with questions to answer regarding his role in the controversial scheme.

"We feel that the terms of reference of the judge-led inquiry, announced by the government last week, are too narrow," he said.

"There is also concern that evidence will be taken in private during that inquiry, when, in fact, it is the secrecy of the on-the-runs scheme which has contributed greatly to the problems."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt yesterday questioned why one-week on from the call for a judge-led inquiry into the on-the-runs controversy, no inquiry had yet begun.

"This stinks of a cover-up designed to push the conclusion of the process beyond the May 22 elections," he said.

Ministers 'may have misled Commons over IRA on-the-runs scheme  

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