Northern Ireland secretary says IRA members who received 'letters of comfort' should no longer rely on them
Henry McDonaldThe Guardian
3 Sept 2014IRA "on-the-runs" should realise that they can no longer rely on secret letters given to them to escape prosecution from past Northern Ireland Troubles-related crimes, the secretary of state Teresa Villiers has told a parliamentary committee.
But the government will not be publishing any of the names of the IRA activists who were brought into the scheme that critics say gave republicans get-out-of-jail cards, Villiers also confirmed on Wednesday.
More than 200 IRA members who fled to the Irish Republic or further afield to escape prosecution hold so-called "letters of comfort" which Tony Blair's government drew up during the final phase of the peace process. Villiers warned IRA members who received these letters that "they should not rely upon them any longer".
In a message to the IRA fugitives, she said: "If they drew some comfort from these letters in the past they should not do so in the future."
She accepted that there had been a "very serious failure in the way the scheme was run".
Villiers told the Northern Ireland affairs committee there would be a "clear general statement to parliament" to publicly confirm that the letters were no longer "get-out-of-jail cards" for wanted IRA fugitives.
Villiers said there was "no 100% guarantee" that the production of these letters in court could not result in the collapse of future trials of IRA fugitives.
The existence of the letters to some of the IRA's most wanted emerged during the trial of John Downey, a convicted IRA member, earlier this year. Downey stood accused of being behind the 1982 Hyde Park bombings in which 11 soldiers were killed. The trial against the 62-year-old Donegal man collapsed when his legal team produced one of the letters, which stated that the police were no longer seeking him for any Troubles-related crimes.
The North Down MP Sylvia Hermon challenged Villiers to publish the names of all the IRA members who had received the letters. But the secretary of state said she had taken a decision not to publish the names of those on the scheme due to issues of personal security and the rights to privacy of individuals under European legislation.
Villiers acknowledged that the existence of the scheme was "extremely hurtful" to IRA victims, but she said: "The publication of the names of those who went through the scheme would not be appropriate."
There was a further exchange between Lady Hermon and the secretary of state over the 13 convicted IRA members given full royal pardons. Villiers rejected Hermon's demand that these 13 be named.
"In effect secretary of state, some people are above the law?" Hermon asked.
In response to unionist anger over the clandestine scheme drawn up between the Blair government and Sinn Féin, David Cameron announced a judicial inquiry into the deal.
Lady Justice Hallett, who led the inquiry, found serious failings in the on-the-runs scheme – but also that letters sent to terrorism suspects "did not amount to an amnesty".
As well as Downey, other leading republican fugitives were given "letters of comfort" from the then Labour government.
These include Rita O'Hare, who is wanted in connection with attacks on British troops in the early 1970s and once ran Sinn Féin's office in Washington DC.
Other on-the-runs are Owen Carron, the former Sinn Féin MP who succeeded Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone after Sands's death in the 1981 hunger strike; and two men wanted in connection with the murder of the garda Gerry McCabe in the Irish Republic in 1996, one of whom now lives in Latin America.