The administrative scheme for "on-the-runs" - Northern Ireland Affairs Contents


Our sympathies are with the victims and their relatives, and especially those connected with the Hyde Park bombings. We do not believe that they have been well served by HM Government. Nevertheless, we are grateful to former Prime Minister Rt Hon Tony Blair for his apology to victims for the hurt caused by the existence of the scheme, and to Secretary of State Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP for accepting that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) shared the blame for the Downey error.

It is questionable whether the "on-the-runs" (OTR) scheme was lawful or not, but we believe its existence distorted the legal process. We accept that there was a difficult peace process going on at the time, but believe that there still has to be transparency and accountability in government and in the legal process.

We also believe, and as has been accepted by some witnesses, including Tony Blair, former Secretaries of State and the Permanent Secretary in the NIO, that it was badly run and, if it existed at all, should have been formalised within the various agencies involved with clear lines of reporting and accountabilities. This should have included full avenues of dialogue between police forces and other agencies involved to ensure that all steps were taken to send out accurate information at the end of the process and discussed publicly. Given the context in which these issues took place we believe that those involved in the process felt strongly that there was the need for a degree of necessary confidentiality. However we do believe that the desire to achieve this contributed to the outcome with which we are faced and we believe that a more open process could have prevented the letter being sent to Mr John Downey.

We are very surprised that Mr Downey's case remained on the Sinn Féin lists the NIO held and was one of the cases the Operation Rapid team was asked to look at again, given that the NIO were aware that he was wanted for serious terrorist offences. We are further dismayed that the PSNI concluded that he was not wanted. And we question why the letters were worded in the open-ended way they were, saying that the PSNI were "not aware" of interest by any other police force in the person concerned.

We do not accept that the OTRs were an "anomaly". If OTRs were suspected of having committed offences, they should have been tried in the normal way. If they were not suspected of anything, then there is no issue. The Committee believes that the scheme should never have taken place in the manner in which it was developed and run.

It is hard to understand how anyone could consider that writing letters to innocent people saved the peace process. We therefore conclude the scheme did amount to an amnesty of sorts, in at least one case—that of John Downey.

We are alarmed that the PSNI believed that up to 95 people who received letters were connected through intelligence to almost 300 murders, and indeed that the Metropolitan Police wished to speak to some of them. We urge HM Government to provide the resources to enable the police to reassess these cases quickly.

We regret the absence of an appeal to remove the stay put on the trial. We are surprised that the balance was placed in favour of preserving the integrity of the criminal justice system over the public interest involved in continuing the trial of someone accused of carrying out multiple murders. On the contrary, we believe that the integrity of the criminal justice system, and part of HM Government, has been damaged by the stay which was put on the case.

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Prepared 24 March 2015