Northern Ireland

On The Runs: How court hearing revealed nature and extent of deal

John Downey entering court
A hearing into whether the trial should go ahead of John Downey, centre, for the murder of four soldiers in Hyde Park in 1982, revealed that 187 people had received letters assuring them they did not face arrest and prosecution for IRA crimes.

The deal between the government and Sinn Féin to provide assurance to so-called On The Runs had never been publicly acknowledged until it was brought before an Old Bailey judge.

Mr Justice Sweeney heard from Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly that 187 people had received letters assuring them they did not face arrest and prosecution for IRA crimes.

The judge was deciding whether the trial of John Downey, 62, for the murder of four soldiers in a bomb attack in Hyde Park in 1982 should go ahead.

Mr Downey, from Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, who denied the charges, was one of the 187 to have received a letter of assurance, the court heard.

Assurance

The letters were an attempt to resolve the long-running issue of On the Runs, escaped prisoners or those who feared arrest for paramilitary crimes committed in the UK before the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, the judge was told.

The court also heard that the first letters had come from 10 Downing Street, when Tony Blair was prime minister.

Mr Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, told the hearing: "I was the signatory of the initial letters. Later signatories to similar letters were senior officials in the Northern Ireland Office.

"What each letter was intended to reflect, was that on the basis of information then available to the authorities and carefully considered in each case individually, an assurance was being given that the individual would not be subject to arrest and subsequent prosecution if he or she returned to the United Kingdom.

"Although this had not been the solution first envisaged by the British government in its wish to deal with this particular aspect of the past, nevertheless it was intended to provide a solution that worked in practice even if more slowly and in a more cumbersome and less universal way than had been wished by those negotiating on behalf of Sinn Féin."

Commitment

Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain told the court that an "administrative scheme" that had begun as a temporary measure, became the means by which the issue of On The Runs was dealt with when efforts to establish a formal mechanism failed.

"The scheme addressed the position of individuals who, through Sinn Féin, put their names forward," Mr Hain said.

"To qualify for consideration, the offences for which each individual who believed he or she might be suspected, or 'wanted', in some cases already convicted and having escaped from prison, should have been committed before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and have been connected with the conflict in Northern Ireland.

"The group to which the individual concerned was affiliated, ie the IRA, must adhere to the commitment to cessation of armed conflict.

"Whilst the first cases pressed by Sinn Féin concerned those who lived and had family in the north of Ireland, the scheme extended to applicants in the Republic of Ireland who had no such relationships and to persons whose extradition had been actively sought from within other jurisdictions.

"The scheme was not limited to offences committed in the north of Ireland."

'Not amnesty'

Mr Downey received his letter in 2007. Before then, when his name had been submitted Sinn Féin had been told he was wanted by police and liable to be arrested.

When he received the letter John Downey was, in fact, still listed on the police national computer as wanted by the Met. The mistake in telling him he was not wanted was never corrected.

In staying the trial of Mr Downey, Mr Justice Sweeney said: "As yet, there has been no sensible explanation for the various Operation Rapid [the PSNI review of people listed as 'wanted' ] failures."

He said: "The standard letter did not amount to an amnesty as such.

"However, its terms (and in particular the references to the SSNI and the Attorney General) were intended to and did make clear that it was issued in the name of the government and that the assurances within it could be relied upon with confidence as meaning what they said, namely an unequivocal statement that the recipient was not wanted - with the obvious implication from the remainder that thus the recipient would not be arrested or prosecuted unless new evidence came to light or there was a new application for extradition."

The letter Mr Downey received in 2007 stated: "The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been informed by the Attorney General that on the basis of the information currently available, there is no outstanding direction for prosecution in Northern Ireland, there are no warrants in existence, nor are you wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charge by the police."

Peace building

"The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not aware of any interest in you from any other police force in the UK."

"If any other outstanding offence or offences come to light, or if any request for extradition were to be received, these would have to be dealt with in the usual way."

Mr Downey had relied on the letter, sent to him by the Northern Ireland Office, to visit members of his family in Canada .

He had sought reassurance from the Canadian authorities, supported by his letter from the NIO, that he could travel there despite having been named by British newspapers in relation to the Hyde Park bombing, a charged he denied.

Mr Downey's defence said the letter of assurance had also allowed him to work in peace building in Northern Ireland.

The court heard Mr Downey had played a "central and significant role" in building relationships between republican and loyalist former prisoners groups in Londonderry.

Mr Downey had also attended weekend residential workshops in the Corrymeela Peace Centre in County Antrim in 2012 and 2013, when former IRA members and former members of the security forces exchanged views.

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