THE prosecution of a 62-year-old former member of the IRA for the Hyde Park bomb in 1982 has collapsed following what a judge described as "catastrophic failures" by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
John Downey, from Donegal, walked free after the Central Criminal Court in London ruled that assurances he was given following the peace process that he was not wanted for the bombing were "wholly wrong".
The former oyster farmer was arrested in May of last year at Gatwick Airport en route to Greece. He was later accused of the bombing, which killed four soldiers and seven horses on their way from their barracks through Hyde Park.
Downey pleaded not guilty to four murder charges and one of intending to cause an explosion likely to endanger life. His defence team argued that he had received a letter in 2007 assuring him that he was not wanted for arrest in Northern Ireland and that the authorities there did not know of any interest in him by the UK authorities.
However, it subsequently emerged, through hearings that can only be reported now, that the PSNI had known that he was wanted by the UK authorities for the bombing and officers there did nothing to correct the error after the letter had been issued.
The letter was one of 187 issued to 'on-the-runs' ('OTRs'), people who were suspected of offences or who had escaped from custody prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and were subsequently told that they were no longer wanted.
In a detailed judgement, Mr Justice Sweeney said a review started in 2007 by the PSNI, called 'Operation Rapid', of offences prior to 1998 had revealed that Downey was wanted by the British authorities in connection with the Hyde Park bomb but the details were not passed on. This was a "catastrophic failure", according to the judge.
"When the defendant received his letter, he was entitled to, and did, believe that it was the product of careful and competent further work and that there had been a genuine and correct change of mind about him – particularly given that he was a supporter of the peace process," said the judge.
As a result of the letter, Downey – who was convicted for membership of the IRA in 1974 – had travelled to both the UK and Canada before he was arrested last year. The failures by the PSNI have not been fully explained, said the judge.
Afterwards, relatives of the four soldiers said in a statement: "It is with great sadness and bitter disappointment that we have received the full and detailed judgment and that a trial will now not take place.
"This news has left us all feeling devastatingly let down, even more so when the monumental blunder behind this judgment lies at the feet of the PSNI."
Northern Ireland chief constable Matt Baggott apologised to the families, saying: "I deeply regret these failings, which should not have happened."
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said police in Northern Ireland should reflect on "the serious error".
President of the Association of Chief Police Officers Hugh Orde, who was chief constable of Northern Ireland at the time of the error, said: "It is a matter of great personal regret that a crucial oversight was made by a senior officer, which resulted in erroneous information being sent to Mr Downey by the Northern Ireland Office and thus prejudicing the current indictment."
The former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, said in a witness statement to the court: "No mistake of such importance could or should have been permitted to have gone uncorrected."
The judge ruled last week that the trial should be halted "in the very particular circumstances of this case".
The prosecution yesterday said it would not appeal the case, resulting in previous reporting barriers falling.
Mr Downey did not comment after the case.
The Sinn Fein MP for Mid-Ulster, Francie Molloy, welcomed the decision, saying it was one that they had been expecting and that the assurances given had been part of the Good Friday Agreement.
Shane Hickey, London