Belfast Telegraph

OTR letter official unaware of fugitive's notoriety, probe told

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

A civil servant who signed a letter telling a fugitive republican he was no longer wanted was unaware of his notoriety, an inquiry has heard.

Mark Sweeney put his signature to 60 of the 95 of the so-called "letters of comfort" during his three years at the Northern Ireland Office in what he described as an "exceptional" scheme.

He told MPs examining the controversial on-the-runs scheme he did not realise one of the recipients - John Downey - was being hunted by police investigating the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

He said: "Downey didn't mean anything to individuals in the NIO, including me."

John Downey walked free from the Old Bailey last year when his prosecution for the murders of four soldiers in the IRA's attack collapsed after it emerged he had been mistakenly assured in an official letter he was able to return to the UK.

Mr Sweeney said it was regrettable that the letter had been mistakenly sent but claimed it had gone out in good faith.

"I am very sorry the letter was issued, it clearly shouldn't have done," he added.

"I wouldn't want anyone to be in any doubt that's what I think.

"It is also the case, as far as I am concerned, that the NIO sent the letter in good faith having been assured that Mr Downey was not wanted and having checked to that effect.

"That doesn't mean that I don't deeply regret that the letter issued - it shouldn't have done. It's absolutely clear."

Mr Sweeney, who headed the NIO's Rights and International Relations Division between 2004 and 2007, was giving evidence to a Northern Ireland Affairs select committee inquiry at Westminster.

He was accompanied by Simon Case, a former deputy director, security and legacy group at the NIO, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Permanent Secretary Sir Jonathan Stephens.

Mrs Villiers said lawyers have advised the government not to disclose the names of republicans who received letters. Members of the committee have repeatedly called for the names to be disclosed.

The OTR scheme started in 2000 and saw around 95 of the letters of comfort issued by the Government to suspects linked to almost 300 murders.

They told people they were not wanted at that time but did not rule out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

The plan was drawn up following pressure from Sinn Fein to allow the fugitives, who had they been in prison before 1998 would have been released under the Good Friday Agreement, to return to Northern Ireland.

An investigation was launched by MPs when the prosecution of John Downey was halted after he received one of the OTR letters in error.

The PSNI was heavily criticised for failing to inform the authorities issuing the letter that Mr Downey was wanted by the Metropolitan Police for questioning over the Hyde Park outrage. Mr Downey (62) from Co Donegal, denied involvement in the attack.

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