On The Runs: Peter Robinson gives government deadline

First Minister Peter Robinson has threatened to resign

Northern Ireland's first minister has given the government until Thursday night to respond to the crisis over secret letters sent to more than 180 Irish republican paramilitary suspects.

Peter Robinson has also asked for the NI Assembly to be recalled on Friday.

Mr Robinson held talks with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers at Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday night.

Earlier, Mr Robinson had threatened to resign unless a judicial inquiry into the so-called "On The Runs" was held.

After his hour-long talks with Ms Villiers, Mr Robinson said he was satisfied that the issue goes beyond the letters, which give assurances to the suspects that they are not being sought by police.

Who are the On The Runs?

Agreement cover

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.

He said he had information that the Royal Prerogative, effectively granting amnesty to some republicans, had been used.

"It appears that we are not just dealing with On The Runs who received letters, but we are also dealing with people who received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, that indicates there were offences involved," he said.

"So we are not talking just about people who it is believed that the police did not have sufficient evidence to make a prosecution stick - that makes it a very serious matter."

Assurances

A spokesperson for Ms Villiers said her meeting with Mr Robinson was "constructive".

The spokesperson added: "The first minister set out his concerns and they discussed possible ways forwards, and the secretary of state undertook to get back to them."

Justice Minister David Ford also met Ms Villiers in a separate meeting on Wednesday night.

He said he had received assurances that his department had played no role in sending the letters.

"The Department of Justice has not been involved in sending out any amnesty letters and it will not be involved in doing so as long as I remain minister," he said.

Mr Ford, leader of the Alliance Party, also backed Mr Robinson's request to recall the assembly.

Mr Robinson is consulting other parties on the wording of a motion to put before the assembly.

The Democratic Unionist Party leader had made his resignation threat after the trial of Donegal man John Downey collapsed.

'Dreadful mistake'

Mr Downey denied killing four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing.

The case collapsed because he was mistakenly told in a letter in 2007 that he was no longer a wanted man, despite the fact that police in Northern Ireland knew he was still being sought by Scotland Yard.

Although police soon realised they had made a mistake, the assurance was never withdrawn.

Prime Minister David Cameron told the Commons on Wednesday that Mr Downey should never have been sent the letter and that it had been a "dreadful mistake".

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