Justice minister is receiving legal advice on On the Runs


The justice minister said he was obtaining legal advice to determine whether the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) had the power to issue letters to On the Runs following the devolution of policing and justice powers.

David Ford was responding to an urgent Assembly question from the DUP's Paul Givan on 3 March 2014.

Mr Givan had asked what steps the minister was taking to identify the legal status of a scheme in which letters were sent to republican paramilitary suspects giving them assurances they were not being sought by police, after justice powers were devolved in 2010.

Details of secret letters sent to 187 paramilitary suspects came to light after the London trial of a man suspected of the IRA bombing in Hyde Park in 1982 collapsed.

John Downey, from County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, had denied killing four soldiers in the attack. He received his letter in 2007 and after seeing the document, the judge stopped his trial.

The Northern Ireland Office has previously said 38 of the letters were issued by its officials to "individuals who were already under consideration" since the coalition government came into power in 2010.

Mr Givan asked if the NIO had usurped its responsibilities on a devolved matter and if the criminal justice agencies, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), had been "complicit in aiding and abetting the NIO's unlawful actions by taking this scheme forward".

Mr Ford said he had received an apology from the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, that the scheme had originally been presented as if it was "something merely in the past administered by her Labour predecessors".

He said that following the devolution of powers, the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy remained solely a reserved matter for the Secretary of State and his responsibilities and those of his department related to non-terrorist cases.

TUV leader Jim Allister asked the minister if he was to receive advice that his functions had been usurped would he make an application to the High Court to quash the 38 letters issued.

Mr Ford said there could possibly be a difference between the advice given and the actual decision made by a court.

The minister concluded it was possible he would not be able to answer some of the questions asked until the judge-led inquiry reported at the end of May.

A threat by Peter Robinson to resign as Northern Ireland first minister was lifted after Prime Minister David Cameron agreed there should be a judge-led inquiry into the matter.

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