Belfast Telegraph

No10 'asked for terror men release'

Downing Street asked police in Northern Ireland to release two republican terror suspects hours after they had been arrested in connection with the attempted murder of a soldier, a former police detective has alleged.

The phone call from Government in 2007 was made at the request of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, retired Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Detective Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter told a Westminster committee.

Mr Baxter branded the intervention as an "illegal and unconstitutional" attempt to pervert the course of justice.

The ex-officer said he refused the request and noted that one of the men arrested was subsequently convicted of attempted murder.

The former senior detective levelled the explosive claims while giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is investigating a controversial scheme set up by the last Labour government to deal with fugitive republicans.

Mr Baxter first alleged the Northern Ireland Office put pressure on the PSNI to create the circumstances where on-the-run suspects, who in some instances were "high profile members of Sinn Fein", could return to the UK.

He then claimed pressure had also been exerted from Downing Street in regard to the 2007 arrests of Gerry McGeough and Vincent McAnespie in relation to the attempted murder of Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) solider Sammy Brush near Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone in 1981.

"They were arrested, I have a note here, on the 8th of March some time around tea time and taken to the serious crime suite at Antrim," he said.

"At 9.10pm I received a phone call from the duty ACC (Assistant Chief Constable) at (PSNI) headquarters.

"Gerry Adams had telephoned Downing Street demanding their release, Downing Street rang the Chief Constable's office looking their release and I got a phone call suggesting I should release them.

"That of course in my mind is attempting to pervert the course of justice and that was conveyed back to headquarters."

He added: "I don't know who the personality in Downing Street was but as a police officer that is totally illegal and unconstitutional.

"We continued interviewing them and Mr McGeough was subsequently convicted for attempted murder."

Mr McAnespie was acquitted at trial of charges related to the gun attack on Mr Brush.

The part-time UDR soldier and postman was shot as he made a delivery in June 1981. His bullet proof jacket saved his life.

Mr Baxter was asked to appear before the committee to explain his role in the contentious on-the-run administrative scheme which saw letters sent to around 190 republicans informing them they were not being sought by the authorities in the UK.

Details of the scheme, which was agreed by Sinn Fein and the Government in the early 2000s, 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.

Under the process, names of individuals who feared they were wanted fugitives were passed to the Government, the majority through Sinn Fein, asking for an assessment of their status.

As part of the scheme, the PSNI was asked to examine what, if any evidence, it had against the individuals and outline the findings to the NIO.

Mr Baxter and former PSNI assistant chief constable Peter Sheridan today both told MPs they were unaware that the information they provided to the Government would end up being sent to the individuals.

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.

The letter was sent by the NIO but was based on an assessment made by Mr Baxter that Downey was not wanted by police.

The PSNI was heavily criticised in the wake of the case for failing to mention that Mr Downey was wanted by the Met.

Mr Justice Sweeney said sending the letter to Mr Downey had been a "catastrophic" mistake.

Mr Baxter today insisted his statement referred only to the situation in Northern Ireland and the final letter included additions made by the NIO.

He refuted any suggestion that an error had been made by him or the PSNI and criticised the service's current chief constable Matt Baggott for apologising over the episode.

He said it would have been illegal for him to inform a suspect if he was wanted by another police force.

"I am sure you have read in the judgment questions as to why I did not refer to Mr Downey being wanted for the Hyde Park bombing," he said, claiming that prosecutors made no attempt to gain the PSNI's view while the case was ongoing.

"I want to make quite clear - that was not a mistake, that was not a catastrophic mistake, but it was a legal requirement.

"I have no jurisdiction, or had no jurisdiction, to pass information about a person wanted in another jurisdiction to that individual, indeed to do so would be prejudicing the investigation, it would be perverting the course of justice."

Mr Baxter further claimed that at a meeting in 2006 officials for the attorney general for England and Wales, who then had responsibility for Northern Ireland as well, made clear they would assume responsibility for checking if forces on mainland UK were seeking any of the fugitives listed by Sinn Fein.

The long serving officer said Mr Baggott should have made some inquiries before adopting a "culture of apology".

"Mr Baggott reacted without knowledge, I think it was poor leadership in that area to go on to cover for the NIO," he said.

Mr Baxter said he feared that people would try to hang him out to dry.

"At the end of the day the victims and people in Northern Ireland need to know that there is a robust prosecution process and that they can have confidence in justice and this has totally undermined it," he said.

"The victims of Northern Ireland will never get justice. Once the Sentencing Act (linked to the Good Friday peace agreement) was passed which allowed prisoners to be released and all these other schemes, justice in relation to republican and loyalist terrorists has been totally corrupted.

"The victims, the casualties, the collateral damage of a policy decided in 1998, it is almost as if the victims are crying out for justice and there is no one to listen to them and this process is just more evidence of it."

Mr Baxter claimed there was "a culture within the NIO to ensure that republicans were not prosecuted".

He also criticised current Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers for blaming the PSNI over the Downey case.

"I thought the Secretary of State's statement was quite disgraceful in blaming the police without any due process," he said.

"She, by doing so, was covering up for what was going on with this administrative process."

Downey denied involvement in the Hyde Park attack.

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.

Appearing after Mr Baxter, Mr Sheridan said the police review team knew Downey was wanted by the Metropolitan Police and more information should have been given to the judge.

"The judge should have been told that the PSNI officers were completely unaware that there were letters going out and that there was additional information put in the letter that went out that was different from the letter that we sent to the DPP."

He said professionals in the NIO knew where the line constituting political interference was and did not cross it, as far as he was aware.

The retired senior officer insisted police acted properly.

"The policing role in this was to test the evidence at that time, which is what the review team did.

"It would have been good if the judge had access to all of the facts and information.

"It is a matter of disappointment that we did not have the opportunity to put some of this information in front of the judge.

"I feel extremely sorry for the families. It is only going to add to the bewilderment and confusion about what was happening. At some stage we have to separate this whole past and deal with victims, and deal properly with victims."

He said the public had already accepted that the most those convicted of pre-Good Friday Agreement offences would serve was two years and evidential opportunities from arms decommissioned by paramilitaries could not be pursued.

Committee chairman Laurence Robertson said those steps were mandated by Parliament, unlike the administrative scheme.

Mr Sheridan reiterated that the "blame culture" was only bewildering victims.

Mr Adams said it is a matter of public record that he called for the release of the two men and protested to the British Government.

He said: "I did not ask the British Government to intervene with the PSNI.

"My protest at that time was entirely appropriate given that the British Government had given commitments to resolve the anomaly of the OTRs.

"Mr Baxter's outlandish claim that the NIO was trying to avoid arresting republicans is nonsense and ignores the virtual amnesty provided to the British army and RUC for killing hundreds of citizens.

"Rather than the usual suspects grand-standing on this issue, the reality is that all of these legacy issues need to be dealt with."

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