HUNDREDS of IRA terrorism suspects will learn they no longer have immunity from prosecution today as the British government announces that hundreds of controversial "comfort letters" are to be rescinded.
Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will today tell MPs the letters, issued to individuals suspected of terrorist offences committed before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, are worthless.
Suspects are to be told that the letters, which informed them they were unlikely to face prosecution unless new evidence against them came to light, have been annulled and are "not worth the paper they are written on".
New letters are now likely to be issued telling terrorist suspects that police will be prepared to mount a prosecution should officers believe there is already enough evidence against them to do so.
It is understood that the Historical Enquiries branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is also to conduct a review of all the cases as part of the process of issuing the new letters.
Ms Villiers will appear before MPs on the Commons Northern Ireland select committee today and is expected to restate the UK government's view that the original letters never constituted an amnesty, immunity or an exemption from prosecution.
She will set out plans to formally notify those who received the letters that the documents are worthless.
Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson has given a "cautious welcome" to the move.
"We have made it clear all along that these letters were unacceptable and called on the Secretary of State to rescind them," said the DUP's Mr Donaldson. "It's unacceptable in a democratic society that anyone could be deemed in any sense to be above the law in terms of their involvement in terrorist activity."
The comfort letters were introduced as a way of dealing with on-the-run suspects who had not been imprisoned for terrorist offences and released as part of the Good Friday Agreement.
Their existence became known after the prosecution of a suspected Hyde Park bomber collapsed amid widespread anger in February when it emerged he had been sent one of the letters.
John Downey (62), from Donegal, was arrested last year as he passed through Gatwick Airport and was charged with the murder of four British soldiers in the 1982 bombing. However, the case against him was thrown out by a senior judge when it became known he had received a comfort letter informing him he would not be prosecuted.
The letter had in fact been sent to him by mistake, as the Metropolitan Police still had a warrant for his arrest over the Hyde Park outrage, which killed four soldiers of the Blues and Royals.
A UK government source said: "What the government is determined to do is make sure that nobody in receipt of one of the original letters should be in any doubt that they cannot rely on those letters to protect them from prosecution should new evidence emerge or a reassessment of existing evidence leads the PSNI and prosecuting authorities to a different conclusion from their original one."
The problem remains how to practically inform suspects of the new arrangements. Possibilities include sending the new letters either to individuals, to a central body that could then distribute them or the message could be delivered using public statements.
Victims of IRA terrorism claimed the original letters were a "get out of jail" card. A UK review by Lady Justice Hallett in July concluded that while the scheme was not run in secret and was not in reality an amnesty, victims of the IRA were kept in the dark about it. The PSNI declined to comment. (© Daily Telegraph, London)