Belfast Telegraph

Paterson: 12 OTR letters in my term

Around a dozen republican suspects received "on-the-run" letters during the first two years of the coalition Government, a former Northern Ireland Secretary said.

Owen Paterson said the administrative scheme for telling people they were not wanted by police for Northern Ireland-related deaths was winding down during his tenure from May 2010. By 2012, efforts to devolve the process to the power-sharing government in Belfast had "fallen through the grating".

He said it was not a major issue when he came in and the letters did not prevent people from being charged and tried.

The Conservative MP for North Shropshire said: "This was a messy issue, it resolved matters none of us knew about because none of us were involved in talks at the time.

"By the time it got to me, it had pretty much run its course.

"I would have stopped it immediately if it had been a horror to victims. I could not see how victims could object to it."

Mr Paterson said around 12 letters were sent during his tenure, a phase when the scheme was winding down until the collapse of the trial of a man for murdering four soldiers during the 1982 Hyde Park bombing ignited controversy.

The peace process scheme devised by Tony Blair's Labour government involved Sinn Fein submitting candidates for so-called "comfort letters" and the authorities acceding to or denying requests.

Mr Paterson told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs he met Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in summer 2012, the last in several "sterile" discussions about the issue, and told him the matter should thereafter be dealt with by the devolved administration.

However due to the summer Olympics and the holiday season, the issue "fell through the gratings" and Stormont justice minister David Ford was not informed.

Mr Paterson said the scheme had more or less dried up by the time he was appointed Northern Ireland Secretary. Other more important issues included the threat posed by extremist dissident republicans and negotiating for more Treasury funding to tackle the danger.

He pointed out that the previous Labour government established the scheme.

"We had to take on what we had inherited, for all their imperfections, and it was not for us to start tearing things apart.

"The number was down to a very small number in the end and we had much bigger issues to be concerned with."

Alliance Party East Belfast MP Naomi Long said victims were wounded, hurt and betrayed.

DUP Upper Bann MP David Simpson said: "This process has inflicted pain and torture on victims again. This has opened old wounds, it takes a lot of time to get over these things."

The process emerged in February when the prosecution of Co Donegal man John Downey for the murder of four soldiers in the Hyde Park bombing collapsed because he had been sent one of the letters in error, when police were seeking him.

It triggered a storm of controversy at Stormont, with Sinn Fein's political opponents denouncing what they characterised as a secret side-deal that conferred 'get out of jail free' cards on terror suspects. Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign.

In July, a judge-led review ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron found that the scheme was systematically flawed in operation but not unlawful in principle.

Lady Justice Heather Hallett said a "catastrophic" error had been made in the Downey case, with potential mistakes in two other instances, but insisted the assurance letters did not amount to amnesties.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said the Government would no longer stand over the factual accuracy of the letters and claimed they were effectively worthless documents.


From Belfast Telegraph