Belfast Telegraph

Villiers rejects call over OTRs law

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has rejected calls for legislation making clear that Government comfort letters issued to republican "on-the-run" fugitives from the Troubles are no longer valid.

Ms Villiers said new laws would be no more effective than statements she has already made confirming that the letters should not be relied upon.

She spoke after an inquest into the murder of a father of two from Northern Ireland was dramatically halted after it emerged a suspect had been wrongly issued with a letter assuring him he was not being sought by the authorities.

The comfort letters scheme was drawn up under Labour government at the request of Sinn Fein and saw about 200 letters sent to so-called on-the-runs (OTRs), assuring them they were not being actively pursued by the UK authorities

Answering an urgent question on scheme, Ms Villiers told the Commons : "It is clear to me that the most effective means to guard against future collapses of trials and future abuse of processes defence is to issue a clear statement indicating to anyone who received a letter under the scheme that it is not safe to rely on these letters, that they should not be relied on and that is what I did.

"The option of legislating on these matters was carefully considered but the conclusion is that legislation would not be as effective as a clear statement at the Despatch Box that the scheme is at an end and these letters should not be relied on, not least because of a risk that errors have been made in other cases."

She added: "Having considered this carefully, the most effective means to ensure that we do everything we can to remove barriers to justice is by a clear statement indicating that this scheme is at an end and these letters should not be relied, that's what I've done.

"Legislation would not take us further and I believe would not be the right option in this instance."

Former prime minister Tony Blair has said the OTR scheme was crucial in securing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

But yesterday Armagh court heard that a decade later in 2008 an OTR letter was passed from the Government to Sinn Fein Northern Ireland Assembly member Gerry Kelly, who then passed it to a suspect in the 2003 killing of Gareth O'Connor.

The court was told this happened five years after Mr O'Connor's father claimed Mr Kelly had assured him the IRA was not involved in the crime and that he would tell him if he was made aware of any development.

A lawyer for Northern Ireland's Senior Coroner John Leckey described Mr Kelly's role as a "matter of public concern" and the inquest was halted to allow police to assess whether a prosecution is now possible in the case.

The DUP's Ian Paisley (North Antrim), asking the urgent question, said the most disturbing aspect of the case was that the murder came after the 1998 peace agreement, yet a suspect received an OTR letter in error regardless.

Mr Paisley called for the full publication of all recipients of the letters and legislation to "formally annul" their value and "put meat on the bones" on Ms Villiers' statement that they are without value.

He also called for compensation for the families of victims of crime whose cases have been affected by the letters.

He told MPs: "The most disturbing aspect of what you have told the House today is the fact that the O'Connor murder relates to a post-1998 murder that occurred in 2003.

"We have been consistently told that the names of the OTRs were critical to securing a 1998 peace agreement, yet this murder post-dates that occurrence .

"Would you now agree to publish all of the names with all of the letters?

"Could you estimate how many other errors are in this catalogue of errors and accept that the Government and the Hallett Review, whose conclusion is that there is a single error, that that conclusion is now without foundation?

"And would you now consider legislation to formally annul the value of all of these letters to put meat on the bones of what you have said that these letters are without value?

"Would you agree that Gerry Kelly must be formally investigated for how these letters have been distributed and who have been asked for these letters?"

Northern Ireland Select Committee chair Laurence Robertson called for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to be given enough resources to be able to quickly investigate all the potential links between the scheme and murder cases to make sure legislation is not needed.

He said: "Can the Government ensure that the PSNI has the full resources to look into all those cases, not in the as much as nine years that the PSNI estimated it may take them, so that they can go through those very, very quickly so the Government can decide if there is a need for perhaps legislation in order to make it absolutely clear that nobody can rely on these letters to protect them from prosecution?"

The OTR scheme came to public prominence last year when the prosecution of a man for the murder of four soldiers in an IRA bombing in Hyde Park in 1982 was halted when it emerged that he had received one of the letters in error when he was in fact wanted by the Metropolitan Police.

John Downey, 63, who denied involvement in the bomb, walked free from the Old Bailey when the judge ruled that his arrest had been an abuse of process.

Around 200 letters were issued to individuals under the Government scheme, with Sinn Fein acting as the conduit in many of the cases.

Last year a review into the process ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron and conducted by Lady Justice Heather Hallett identified other instances where errors may have been made.

The suspect in the O'Connor case has now been revealed as one of those cases.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis reiterated Labour's apology for errors in the scheme and said it was never intended to cover alleged offences after 1998.

He said: "News of another error from the administrative scheme for the on-the-runs is devastating following a catastrophic error in the Downey case last year.

"We have apologised for the Downey error and do so again for the error in the O'Connor case.

"In the same way as this scheme never offered amnesty, it was also never intended to cover alleged offences committed after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement."

Ms Villiers also reiterated the Government's apology.

She said: "I would welcome Mr Lewis's repetition of the apology he gave on behalf of the previous government for the errors made in the cases and I of course am happy to reiterate the apology that I made on behalf of this Government for the pain and hurt caused to all families affected by the OTR scheme."

Ms Villiers also warned that other errors were likely to come to light in the future because of the way the scheme had been mismanaged.

SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie (South Down) asked the minister for assurance that no further errors would now be revealed.

But Ms Villiers replied: "The Hallett report was very clear in its conclusions ... that it wasn't properly managed.

"I think anyone reading the Hallett report must expect that further errors will come to light. As I told the House earlier on she (Lady Justice Hallett) highlighted 36 further cases as ones where the risk of error is higher than others.

"That is one of the reasons why no-one should be relying on these letters because I'm afraid, because of the errors in the way the scheme was managed, it is likely that there are other errors which will come to light in future."

During the debate, Ms Villiers was repeatedly pressed to publish the names of those who received OTR letters but she said disclosure had to be handled with the greatest care for fear of prejudicing future cases.

Democratic Unionist David Simpson (Upper Bann) asked whether the Government was reluctant to reveal the names because of who appears on the list.

He said: "Is one of the reasons that the Government will not print these names of the OTRs and the royal pardons in fact because some people who have been elected to this House and currently elected to the Assembly are those that received some of these pardons and OTR letters?"

Ms Villiers replied: " The issue of an OTR letter doesn't necessarily lead to the result it did in the John Downey case. The judgment in that case is very clear. The reason why the trial collapsed was because the letter was incorrect. Mr Downey was wanted, but he was sent a letter indicating he was not.

"So the issuing of an OTR letter does not give immunity from prosecution. It never did and it won't in the future.

"In relation to disclosure of names ... the real problem here is the risk that, by disclosing names, I would myself be jeopardising future prosecutions, making them more difficult, increasing the risk of an abuse of process.

"That is why I'm not proposing to disclose names in relation to this scheme or be drawn on categories of individuals who might have been part of it."

Ms Villiers also confirmed she had been given legal advice that no legislation was required, but said the Northern Ireland office stood ready to take further steps if necessary.

Alliance MP Naomi Long (Belfast East) asked the Northern Ireland Secretary about allegations in the media that the suspect in the O'Connor killing was issued a letter in respect of crimes that pre-dated 1998, but also including the 2003 crime.

She asked whether the tag of "wanted" on the file was changed to "not wanted" before the letter was issued, making it "incredibly difficult to detect".

Ms Villiers said she was reluctant to get into the specifics of the case but added: "There is a real concern that the offence in question related to a post-1998 offence."

Conservative Richard Drax (South Dorset) branded the OTR scheme a "shabby effort" to sign off on the peace deal.

He asked how long it would take to investigate the 95 people who had received letters understood to be connected to 300 murders.

"How long will it take to pursue this and ensure that proper justice is done?" he went on.

Ms Villiers admitted it would take "some years" to go through all the OTR cases.

She added: "That is why it will be something to give serious consideration to as to whether some of the extra funding provided as a result of the Stormont House agreement to deal with matters relating to the past can be used in some way to assist the PSNI."

Democratic Unionist Jim Shannon (Strangford) said the rule of law had been undermined by the OTR system. Ms Villiers agreed some confidence in the justice system had been shaken.

His colleague Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) asked the Northern Ireland Secretary to tell the House who was responsible for the error in relation to the O'Connor case and what the nature of it was, to determine whether it was a "deliberate action" or genuine mistake.

Ms Villiers said the Hallett report indicated the error might have originated within the PSNI, but added: "I don't think we should rush to judgment on that.

"As I have said in relation to the John Downey case, wherever the fact of the error arose, the problem was that the scheme was not designed to guard against errors, it was not designed to pick up on errors when they were made.

"So the overall responsibility for the fact that errors were made still rests at ministerial level.

"I think on both sides of the House there is a consensus that the ministers in power at the time do need to take responsibility for what happened."

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