Belfast Telegraph

On the runs: Ex-PSNI chief constable Hugh Orde says 'no call from Downing Street asking him to release republican terror suspects'

A former chief constable of the PSNI has said no phone call was made from Downing Street asking him to release prisoners.

Sir Hugh Orde is understood to have claimed he would have remembered it until his "dying day".

On Wednesday former PSNI detective chief superintendent Norman Baxter alleged the Prime Minister's department rang the chief constable's office in March 2007.

He said they had asked for the release of two republican suspects in an "illegal and unconstitutional" move.

Sir Hugh, who led the force for seven years before moving to head the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), would not make any public comment. But it is understood he has said no such phone call was received.

Mr Baxter was giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which has begun an inquiry into the process for dealing with on-the-run Irish republican prisoners who received letters telling them they were not wanted by police for paramilitary crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

The letters were revealed in February when the trial of John Downey for the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing was stopped after he mistakenly received one of the letters despite being wanted by the Metropolitan Police.

Mr Baxter told the committee Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had put pressure on Downing Street to ask for the release of Vincent McAnespie and Gerry McGeough, arrested for questioning about the attempted murder of part-time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier Sammy Brish in 1981.

McGeough was later convicted and sentenced for attempted murder.

Mr Baxter criticised current PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott for apologising following the collapse of the Downey trial.

Mr Baggott said he would not withdraw it.

 "I am clear that the apology I gave in the aftermath of this judgment was appropriate. I stand by it," he said.

 "I believe it was appropriate in terms of the facts that were in that judgment."

He called on Mr Baxter to come forward with details behind his allegations and said he had written to the retired officer asking him for an account.

"In relation to asking Mr Baxter for the detail behind his comments yesterday in front of the Select Committee, it is important that we wait and follow up."

He added: "It was a serious allegation made in the context of parliamentary privilege. We now want to assess exactly what the facts are.

 "Once we have got that, if there's any further action necessary then we will take that forward."

PSNI 'told to free IRA suspects after Gerry Adams phoned Downing Street'

The British government put pressure on police to release IRA terror suspects after a request to Downing Street from Gerry Adams, a former police chief has claimed.

Retired PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter told a Westminster inquiry on the on-the-runs letters controversy there was "a culture within the Northern Ireland Office to ensure republicans were not persecuted".

He claimed pressure was put on police by the NIO to pave the way for some suspects, a number of who were "high-profile members of Sinn Fein", to return to the UK.

Mr Baxter told the Northern Ireland Select Affairs Committee of political pressure placed on police, citing the example of the arrests of two men in connection with the attempted murder of a part-time UDA soldier.

A phone call from the British government in 2007 was made at the request of Sinn Fein President Mr Adams, within hours of the arrests.

Gerry McGeough and Vincent McAnespie had been detained in relation to the attempted murder of Ulster Defence Regiment soldier Sammy Brush near Aughnacloy 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," said Mr Baxter.

"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 1981 gun attack.

Under the on-the-runs letters 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.

Mr Baxter said officers involved in Operation Rapid – set up by the PSNI in 2007 to review those regarded as 'wanted' for terrorist offences before the Good Friday Agreement – had no idea letters sent out by the force were being used as part of a political administrative scheme.

Mr Baxter told the Westminster committee that he believed the Northern Ireland Office had acted far beyond its legal remit by sending letters to OTRs, and he added that any political interference undermined police investigations.

Former Assistant Chief Consable Peter Sheridan also gave evidence to MPs yesterday.

Both men were mentioned a number of times the legal judgment by Mr Justice Sweeney at the Old Bailey in February which led to the dropping of charges against alleged Hyde Park bomber John Downey and the subsequent scathing criticism of the PSNI.

Mr Baxter yesterday said he and the PSNI has been scapegoated over the collapse of the Downey case. He described criticism of the PSNI by Theresa Villiers as "disgraceful" and accused Chief Constable Matt Baggott of "poor leadership" over his handling of the situation.

Further reading

PSNI 'told to free IRA suspects after Gerry Adams phoned Downing Street' 

Orde rejects phone call claim 

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