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.

Who are the On The Runs?

Good Friday Agreement

Anyone already convicted of paramilitary crimes became eligible for early release under the terms of the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement of 1998.

The agreement did not cover:

  • Anyone suspected of, but not charged with, paramilitary offences committed before the Good Friday Agreement.
  • Those who had been charged with offences but who had escaped.
  • Those who had been convicted of offences but who escaped.

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.


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.


This judgement could potentially have huge implications for other so-called On The Runs.

In his ruling that John Downey should not stand trial, Mr Justice Sweeney spoke of the importance of holding officials of the state to promises made.

He also said it was in the public interest to ensure "that executive misconduct does not undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system and bring it into disrepute."

Sinn Féin claims that letters similar to the one sent to John Downey were also sent to more than 180 other On The Runs, and told the court it was vital that assurances given by the government as part of the peace process were honoured.

We do not know the individual circumstances of those individuals, the possible charges they are facing or the precise terms of the letters they have been sent.

But if they are similar to the letter sent to John Downey, they are likely to argue that they also amount to a promise that they will not be prosecuted.

It is also highly likely that if in future some of them are arrested and brought before the courts, their lawyers, and Sinn Féin, would point to the example of this case and the conclusion reached by Mr Justice Sweeney.

They would argue that this ruling means those letters do constitute a firm, unequivocal assurance. in other words, a promise of immunity from prosecution.

"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."


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.


Hyde Park scene

1982: Hyde Park nail bombing kills four members of the Royal Household Cavalry, Roy Bright, Dennis Daly, Simon Tipper and Geoffrey Young on 20 July.

1983: On 29 May, John Downey's name is first circulated as being wanted for conspiracy to murder for the Hyde Park bombing.

2002: John Downey's name first appears on Sinn Fein's lists of On The Run prisoners.

2004: In July, a memo from the On The Run review states that SO13, the anti-terrorist branch of the Metropolitan Police, confirms no extradition would be sought for Downey as the intention was to arrest him if he came into their jurisdiction.

2006: In March, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein is informed by the Northern Ireland Office that three individuals, including John Downey, do face arrest and questioning.

2007: On 13 April, in an exchange of letters between the PSNI and the Metropolitan police, it is confirmed by the Met that John Downey is still wanted.

2007: On 22 July, John Downey receives a letter of assurance from Mark Sweeney at the Northern Ireland Office saying he is not wanted by police in Northern Ireland and there is no awareness of interest in him from any other police force in the UK. Nine others receive the same letter, which is written in a standard format.

2008: John Downey travels to Canada. Mr Downey first sought reassurance from the Canadian authorities, supported by his letter from the NIO, that he could travel there despite being named by British newspapers in relation to the Hyde Park bombing, a charge he denied.

2013: John Downey is arrested on 19 May by Sussex police at Gatwick airport on his way to Greece.

2014: On 25 February, Mr Justice Sweeney rules that prosecuting Downey would be an abuse of process and stays his trial for the Hyde Park bombing.

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.

More on This Story

On the Runs controversy

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Northern Ireland stories



Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.