Belfast Telegraph

OTR letters 'have no legal value'

Northern Ireland's chief prosecutor has said letters to on-the-run republicans telling them they are not wanted by police are of no value to perpetrators.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Barra McGrory QC said the assurances were not an impediment to prosecution if new evidence emerges and described the Government scheme as flawed.

He added that he did not believe any leading members of Sinn Fein had received the messages as part of a peace process system for telling people living outside the UK that they were not sought for conflict crimes.

The senior legal figure said: "Anyone who is in receipt of one of these letters ought not to be sleeping easy in their beds."

Police are reviewing the cases of those who had received them and a judge is due to report back on the issue later this month.

The DPP told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs, sitting at Stormont, that if evidence was uncovered by police they should "consider that as potential prosecution and if it meets the evidential test then the individual will be prosecuted".

He added: "I would argue as a prosecutor that they are of no value to them."

He said the letters made clear they were only good on the date they were received.

"It is my professional opinion, as the chief prosecutor of the jurisdiction, that these letters are of little benefit."

The Government process for dealing with those fleeing justice sparked controversy; opponents branded it a grubby deal to win Sinn Fein backing, while supporters insisted it did not constitute an amnesty for murder but was a necessary compromise to support the peace process.

An agreement between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government saw around 200 letters sent to republican OTRs, informing them that UK police were not actively seeking them - but not ruling out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

The scheme was established following the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, administered by the NIO with the involvement of Tony Blair's Downing Street and senior law figures.

It dealt with cases of republicans suspected of IRA terrorism who were never charged or convicted of related offences.

The special arrangements disclosed followed the collapse of the Hyde Park bomb trial, which was stopped when it emerged the man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA bombing had mistakenly received one of the letters.

John Downey, from County Donegal in the Irish Republic, denied the charges.

Mr McGrory said Mr Downey's case was different from other OTRs because he had been sent a letter in error even though the Met were looking for him.

He added that recent advances in DNA analysis showed how new evidence could emerge in some cases and lead to prosecution, despite the suspect having received a letter.

As a lawyer, Mr McGrory acted on behalf of Sinn Fein - as well as former soldiers and police officers - and also met a senior police officer in charge of a specialist PSNI team set up to deal with the OTRs issue.

While representing Sinn Fein, he passed a list of names of individuals to the UK authorities to be considered for the scheme, he told the committee.

However, Mr McGrory said he played no part in designing a scheme devised by politicians in government, in negotiations with Sinn Fein's leadership.

While he did provide some advice regarding the scheme, he played a minimal role and had been acting as a "facilitating solicitor" on behalf of his client, he told the committee.

He said: "If there is a flaw in the scheme, if the scheme had not been constructed in that way, it probably would not have worked politically.

"It is not for me to make a judgment on whether or not it was flawed, it is for society and history to make a judgment on that.

"From a prosecutorial point of view, speaking as a prosecutor, the scheme is flawed in the sense that it submitted names to the prosecution service in respect of whom there was potentially evidence on the basis that the police had no interest in those individuals when in fact in other circumstances they would have."

He said although the letters were of limited legal value, at the time they were introduced they were "politically important obviously, to the prime minister and the leadership of Sinn Fein to move the (peace) process to the next stage".

The DPP added: "Obviously, since the police at the time had engaged in the process of giving the letters, there was a certain amount of confidence in certain quarters that they were no longer being pursued. I think that confidence would now have abated."

Attorney General John Larkin QC, who advises members of Northern Ireland's power-sharing ministerial executive and protects the public interest in matters of law, discussed whether suspects could be tipped off if they applied for a letter and failed to get one.

He told the committee a refusal could amount to being told to "stay where you are" to avoid arrest and added this seemed to give rise to the offence of tipping off or attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Mr Larkin said: "It strikes me that the aspect of the scheme which has been relatively under-explored has been the indication, by whatever means, to individuals that the police are still looking for them."

He hoped care was taken to avoid tipping off a suspect or perverting the course of justice before any indication or material was disclosed that could have informed people that they were wanted.

The former constitutional and human rights lawyer added: "If it wasn't, if there was a carelessness or worse then indeed one would expect that to be properly looked at."

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