Northern Ireland

On the Runs: Matt Baggott says police 'acted lawfully'

Policing Board members were briefed about On The Runs in April 2010
Image caption Matt Baggott briefed the Policing Board on PSNI involvement in the scheme

Chief Constable Matt Baggott has rejected claims that letters sent to so-called On the Runs amounted to get out of jail free cards or an amnesty.

Mr Baggott also told a special meeting of the Policing Board that the PSNI acted lawfully when participating in the scheme.

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

The letters assured the recipients they were not being sought by police.

Mr Baggott said the letters made clear that recipients could be prosecuted if new evidence arose.

As he arrived to face questions about the scheme, Mr Baggott was met by loyalist protesters.

The Progressive Unionist Party claims the scheme proves that republicans have been given preferential treatment.

It said the police should now suspend investigations by the Historical Enquiries Team, many of which have focused on the activities of the UVF.

The DUP criticised the PSNI responses during the meeting.

'Questions not answered'

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Media captionAs he arrived to face questions about the scheme, Mr Baggott was met and jeered by loyalist protesters

"The answers provided in today's meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board did nothing to increase knowledge or understanding of the role of the PSNI in the OTR administrative scheme," the party's Jonathan Craig said.

"On the contrary, the answers provided orally were of such a standard that we have now moved to use the legislative recourses available to us to seek detailed written answers."

The SDLP's Dolores Kelly said: "As a public representative I am not satisfied in the answers received.

"It is clear that there was a shabby side deal between London and Sinn Féin, and that all roads lead back to London.

"I was surprised to learn that the police did not know about the letters until May 2013."

Ulster Unionist Ross Hussey also said questions remained.

"I feel strongly that the Policing Board has the right to question senior NIO officials, and if necessary the former Secretary of State Peter Hain, in relation to these issues as to what guidelines and instructions they gave to PSNI," he said.

'Underhand and immoral'

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has announced it will hold an inquiry into the letters.

Committee chair, Laurence Robertson MP, said: "The committee was unanimous in its determination to hold an inquiry into this matter.

"We feel that the terms of reference of the judge-led inquiry, announced by the government last week, are too narrow.

"There is also concern that evidence will be taken in private during that inquiry, when, in fact, it is the secrecy of the On the Runs scheme which has contributed greatly to the problems.

"There is concern also that the judge will be unable to compel people to attend as witnesses."

Welcoming the inquiry, Democratic Unionist MP David Simpson said: "It is a long time since I have witnessed such agreement amongst the committee members. Everyone was agreed that this underhand and immoral scheme needed to be fully investigated.

"We need to establish how it was set up, its legal basis and how it was administered.

"We want to know why in October 2006, when Peter Robinson asked for an assurance from the then secretary of state in the House of Commons that no other procedure would be used to allow OTRs (On the Runs) to return, Peter Hain replied: 'There is no other procedure'."

The political storm over the issue 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.

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