Northern Ireland

On the Runs: Villiers says letters do not confer immunity

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Media captionSecretary of State Theresa Villiers spoke to Mark Devenport about the review

The Northern Ireland secretary has said letters sent to republicans as part of a government scheme to deal with On the Run cases do not confer immunity.

At least 187 letters were sent assuring recipients they did not face arrest.

Theresa Villiers said the recipients would not be immune from prosecution if new evidence against them emerges.

Details of the On the Runs scheme came to light after the trial of a man suspected of the IRA bombing of Hyde Park in 1982 collapsed in London.

John Downey, from County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, had denied killing four soldiers in the attack.

'Pursued for arrest'

On Thursday, Ms Villiers said: "There are no plans at the moment to send out a fresh set of letters but, what I can make clear this evening, is that anyone who is in receipt of a letter should be very much aware that if new evidence emerges, those letters don't grant immunity from prosecution.

"If new evidence emerges, the individuals will be pursued for arrest and prosecution exactly like anybody else. These letters do not confer an immunity and never did," she said.

The On the Runs administrative scheme was first set up by the previous Labour government, in the years that followed the Good Friday Agreement, but the details were not made public.

After days of controversy over the revelations, including a resignation threat from Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed a judge to lead a review into the On the Runs scheme.

'Degree of knowledge'

The Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Barra McGrory, has given his backing to the judge-led inquiry.

In an interview for BBC Northern Ireland's The View programme, Mr McGrory said he expected it to clear up "any confusion and concerns" about the scheme.

Before he was appointed DPP, he acted as a solicitor to some of the paramilitary suspects in the On the Runs category.

Mr McGrory told the programme he had a "degree of knowledge" about the scheme several years ago but added that he would not comment further ahead of the judge-led review.

Mr Downey, who was convicted of IRA membership in the 1970s, became Scotland Yard's prime suspect after the 1982 attack but he was never extradited from the Republic of Ireland.

Last year, he was arrested at Gatwick Airport, as he travelled through London en route to Greece.

The 62-year-old was charged with the murders and bomb attack and was facing trial.

But the case against him collapsed after it emerged he had been sent a government letter in 2007.

The letter confirmed that Mr Downey was not being pursued by UK authorities and that there no were warrants in existence for his arrest.

Mr Downey said his alleged offences had been categorised as one of the On the Run cases that would no longer be pursued in the light of progress in the Northern Ireland peace process.