Northern Ireland

On the Run scheme not legal since 2010 says Peter Robinson

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Media captionFirst Minister Peter Robinson spoke in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday

Northern Ireland's first minister has suggested that police and the NI Office (NIO) may not have had the legal power to continue the On the Runs scheme after 2010.

That was the year when justice was devolved to Northern Ireland.

On the Runs are people suspected of paramilitary crimes connected to the Northern Ireland Troubles.

A political crisis erupted last week over secret letters sent by the government to 187 Irish republicans.

The letters assured those who received them that they were not being sought by police.

Mr Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionists, criticised the former Labour government and said former prime minister Tony Blair had engaged in "deliberate deception by omission" by failing to tell most politicians in Northern Ireland about the deal struck with Sinn Féin.

He had also threatened to resign unless a judicial inquiry into the On The Runs was held.

He withdrew his threat after Prime Minister David Cameron agreed there should be a judge-led inquiry into the matter.

'No legal authority'

Speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday, Mr Robinson said that, in his view, there was no legal authority for the police to respond and the NIO to issue letters to On the Runs after 2010.

He said the issue may be one for the judge in the forthcoming inquiry as well as the attorney general.

The first minister said he intended to meet the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Secretary.

He said it was not up to the justice minister whether his department or the NIO administered the scheme; it was a matter of law.

"Authority does not lie somewhere out there to float around by the NIO and the devolved administration as to who wants to take an issue out," he said.

The political storm erupted after the trial of Donegal man John Downey collapsed at the Old Bailey last week.

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Although police soon realised they had made a mistake, the assurance was never withdrawn.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