Sunday 25 February 2018

Immunity scheme for on the runs flawed – review

Lady Justice Hallett: issued a review of OTR letters. Photo: PA
Lady Justice Hallett: issued a review of OTR letters. Photo: PA

Liam Clarke

THE northern secretary has pledged to take steps to ensure that two more on the run (OTR) republican suspects who were sent letters of comfort by mistake can still be prosecuted.

The two new cases emerged as a result of a review of OTR letters by Lady Justice Hallett, which was published yesterday.

Her report findings, which have been accepted by the British government in full, found "systematic flaws" in the operation of the "unprecedented" scheme but concluded that it was not unlawful in principle.

One of the new errors granted effective immunity for an offence committed long after the IRA ceasefire.

Another mistakenly cleared a man because his date of birth was wrong.

Lady Justice Hallett asked for 36 cases, in which names or dates may have been wrong, to be reviewed by the PSNI as a matter of urgency.

"Work has now to get under way to decide what steps are necessary to remove potential difficulties with regard to future prosecutions in those cases," Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers said.

She pledged to work closely with David Ford, the UK's justice minister, and the prosecuting authorities to resolve the anomaly.

The errors followed the collapse of the trial of a Donegal republican suspected of the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing.

John Downey travelled to London after receiving a letter assuring him he wasn't wanted by any UK police force. When he was arrested and charged with murder, he produced the letter and the court released him.

Lady Justice Hallett described the case as a "catastrophic mistake" by the PSNI team who carried out the checks on him.

The system of issuing letters of comfort was meant to tell OTRs if there was still evidence against them.

Names were generally submitted through Sinn Fein. In one case, Sinn Fein supplied the wrong day and month of birth and this led to a letter being issued in error.


The scheme was only meant to cover offences committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In the second case, police found that a person was no longer wanted for offences dating back to the 1970s.

However, the same individual was wanted for another offence committed in 2003. Despite this, a letter was issued saying he or she was not wanted for anything.

The "administrative scheme" to check criminal records was imperfect. In 2002, Alasdair Frazer, the then UK director of public prosecutions, flagged up that the computer checks carried out did not always show if an individual was wanted outside Northern Ireland.

A few days later, an official at the attorney general's office also criticised the computer checks and warned that letters could be issued mistakenly and then used to prevent a prosecution.

This is exactly what happened in the case of Mr Downey but no action was taken, and even when police realised that his letter should not have been issued they did not inform the prosecuting authorities.

The Metropolitan Police was never told about the scheme though the Garda Siochana was able to put names forward for clearance under it.

When Mr Downey was released, the administrative scheme was revealed in court.

Peter Robinson, the North's first minister, threatened to resign unless there was a judge-led inquiry into the OTR letters.

Irish Independent

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