On-the-run deals were never kept secret, says John Reid
The controversial scheme to deal with on-the-run republicans was not a secret – although the Government did not actively publicise it, a former Northern Ireland Secretary has said.
Lord Reid told a Westminster committee that while some elements of the peace process were dealt with confidentially, the so-called letters of assurance – telling around 200 individuals they were no longer wanted by the authorities – was not one of them.
"I am not suggesting for a minute we advertised this, I am not suggesting for a minute we went out and made public statements about this scheme," he told MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
The Labour peer added: "We didn't do that, I admit that, but it wasn't kept a secret."
The former Home Secretary was giving evidence to the committee's inquiry into a scheme that was thrust into the spotlight after the collapse of a court case against a man accused of the IRA's Hyde Park bomb.
The prosecution of John Downey (62), from Co Donegal, over the 1982 bomb attack that killed four soldiers was halted in February after a judge found he had been wrongly sent one of the letters in 2007, when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him. Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.
Unionists have been fiercely critical of the process in the wake of the Downey judgment, claiming it was carried out without their knowledge.
Lord Reid said Northern Ireland Office officials had held secret meetings during the peace process, citing encounters with IRA members, but the scheme "wasn't in that category".
"It wasn't confidential in the sense that if somebody asked me about it I would say, 'Oh no, no such thing exists' and it was known about more widely than perceived but I am not going to question the integrity of any politician who says, 'I knew nothing about this'."
Lord Reid, who was Northern Ireland Secretary from 2001 to 2002, said the issue of dealing with on-the-runs had been raised in parliament and a number of answers were provided to questions tabled by MPs. He rejected the suggestion that the letters effectively amounted to amnesties.
Lord Reid suggested politicians had been more concerned about an amnesty than "an administrative scheme that was apparently designed to tell people who weren't wanted, they weren't wanted".