Belfast Telegraph

On-the-runs: Errors found in another two letters

Review uncovers further blunders in flawed scheme

By Liam Clarke

The Secretary of State has pledged to take steps to ensure that two more on-the-run (OTR) republican suspects who were sent letters of comfort by mistake can still be prosecuted.

The two new cases emerged as a result of a review of OTR letters by Lady Justice Hallett which was published yesterday.

Her report findings, which have been accepted by the Government in full, found "systematic flaws" in the operation of the "unprecedented" scheme but concluded it was not unlawful in principle.

One of the new errors was the granting of effective immunity for an offence committed long after the IRA ceasefire. Another was the clearing of a man because his date of birth was wrong.

Lady Justice Hallett asked for 36 cases, in which names or dates may have been wrong, to be reviewed by the PSNI as a matter of urgency.

"Work has now to get under way to decide what steps are necessary to remove potential difficulties with regard to future prosecutions in those cases," Theresa Villiers said.

She pledged to work closely with Justice Minister David Ford and the prosecuting authorities to resolve the anomaly.

The schoolboy errors followed the collapse of the trial of a Donegal republican suspected of the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing.

John Downey travelled to London after receiving a letter assuring him he wasn't wanted by any UK police force. When he was arrested and charged with murder he produced the letter and the court released him.

Lady Justice Hallett described the case as a "catastrophic mistake" by the PSNI team who carried out the checks on him.

One officer, Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter, checked the Police National Computer and found that Mr Downey was being sought by the Metropolitan Police but did not tell his superiors.

The two new cases identified by Hallett are different. The system of issuing letters of comfort was meant to tell OTRs if there was still evidence against them. Names were generally submitted through Sinn Fein. In one case Sinn Fein supplied the wrong day and month of birth and this led to a letter being issued in error.

The scheme was only meant to cover offences committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In the second case police found that a person was no longer wanted for offences dating back to the 1970s. But the same individual was wanted for another offence committed in 2003. Despite this, a letter was issued saying he or she was not wanted for anything.

The "administrative scheme" to check criminal records was imperfect. In 2002 Sir Alasdair Frazer, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, flagged up that the computer checks carried out did not always show if an individual was wanted outside Northern Ireland. A few days later an official at the Attorney General's office also criticised the computer checks and warned that letters could be issued mistakenly and then used to prevent a prosecution.

This is exactly what happened in the case of Mr Downey, and even when police realised that his letter should not have been issued they did not inform the prosecuting authorities. The Metropolitan Police, who have an overall anti-terrorist role in Britain, were never told about the scheme, although the Garda Siochana were able to put names forward for clearance under it.

When Mr Downey was released and the scheme was revealed in court, First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign unless there was a judge-led inquiry.

He said: "I want to know who the 187 people are that received these letters... I want to know who they are, what crimes they were believed to have committed" and demanded that the letters be rescinded.

No information was released on who the letters were sent to or what crimes they had been suspected of, and it is not known if the letters will be rescinded. That is what Ms Villiers must decide before another case comes to court.


  • The on-the-runs scheme was not designed, but evolved, which meant there was no overall policy nor responsibility and accountability for it. It lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards When errors came to light, opportunities were missed to rectify them.
  • Lady Justice Hallett said there was no logical explanation for why police in Northern Ireland failed to flag up that John Downey was wanted by the Metropolitan Police in London.
  • She also criticised the fact that the PSNI missed at least two further opportunities to rectify the error.
  • She found that the Government did not widely publicise the scheme but that it was not secret. But she said the lack of openness caused particular distress to victims of terrorism.
  • There was insufficient legal consultation about the possible consequences of sending out the on-the-run letters.
  • There was pressure exerted by Sinn Fein on the Government to quickly resolve the OTR issue and subsequently by Government on officials, but that pressure “did not cross the line” into becoming improper.
  • The scheme lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards.
  • There was insufficient liaison with other police forces and senior prosecutors elsewhere in the UK.
  • A total of 13 convicted OTRs benefited from royal pardons.


Further reading

10 key points ...and what the report had to say about them

Tony Blair was the driving force, Commons told

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