Saturday 25 October 2014

Villier's privacy fears over naming IRA 'on the runs'

Tom Whitehead

Published 04/09/2014 | 02:30

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

North Secretary Theresa Villiers has refused to name the IRA suspects sent "comfort letters" because it would breach their human rights, despite admitting more could have been sent in error.

She confirmed that the UK Government was effectively annulling the assurances given to the so-called IRA "on-the-runs" - who were sent letters stating that they no longer faced prosecution.

Now the recipients of the letters, which were sent out in the years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, are to be told that they are not worth the paper they are written on and that they could still be pursued by police.

But Ms Villiers rejected pressure from MPs to identify approximately 200 people who were sent letters. She refused to confirm whether senior Sinn Fein politicians Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were among them.

Ms Villiers said that naming any recipient could breach the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as well as risk any future prosecution.

"I do not think it will be helpful to do that. There are privacy circumstances and there are security circumstances," she said.

In a statement to the British House of Commons North committee, Ms Villiers said of the letters: "No one should rely on them any longer to regulate their behaviour. If they drew some comfort from those letters in the past, they should no longer draw comfort from them in the future."

The letters were sent to notify IRA suspects that they were no longer wanted by police. The scale of the scheme only emerged earlier this year when the prosecution of John Downey, the Hyde Park bombing suspect, collapsed after it emerged that he had been sent a letter, even though it was in error.

A review of the scheme by Justice Heather Hallett in July found systemic failings in the way it was run.

Ms Villiers said those failings meant "there is a very real possibility that mistakes were made in other cases which have yet to come to light" and therefore none of the letters should be relied on.

She added: "To all those who have a letter I say ... if the police or prosecuting authorities have evidence which is available today or becomes available in the future to pursue you, they can and will pursue you."

Sylvia Hermon, a committee member, said that not naming those who received letters gave little comfort to IRA victims.

Irish Independent

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