Northern Ireland

On the Runs: Theresa Villiers says scheme is over

Image caption Ms Villiers said the letters were not "get out of jail free cards"

The On the Runs letters scheme is over, according to the Northern Ireland secretary of state.

Theresa Villiers has said that since December 2012 no letters have been issued by the Northern Ireland Office.

Five outstanding applications from republican suspects seeking letters assuring them they are not wanted by police will not be processed by the government.

Ms Villiers said: "The NIO has no plans to take further action on those cases."

"My understanding is the [Stormont] Department of Justice wants nothing to do with the scheme, so as far as the government is concerned this scheme is at an end.

"We are not going to be writing any further letters," she added.

She also said that of the 200 cases considered under the scheme, 38 had been looked at since May 2010.

Of those, 12 had received letters saying they were no longer wanted.

A political storm erupted last week over secret letters sent by the government to nearly 200 republicans.

The letters - details of which emerged in a court ruling - assured recipients they were not sought by police.

Legal status

However, Ms Villiers told a Belfast audience on Friday that they are not "get out of jail free cards", but statements of fact at the time regarding an individual's status in connection with the police and prosecuting authorities.

Figures obtained by the BBC illustrate the extent of the scheme
Image caption Figures obtained by the BBC illustrate the extent of the scheme

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described the secretary of state's declaration as "bizarre", given a previous statement from the UK attorney general that the process of sending letters to paramilitary fugitives had been lawful.

Mr McGuinness also disagreed with the assessment of some unionists that the On the Run letters are now worthless, insisting the recipients had a right to know their legal status under European law.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme, Mr McGuinness said: "I mean, the reality is that if there are people out there who are not being sought for anything in relation to offences, according to European law, if they make an inquiry, they are entitled to know as to whether or not they're being sought.

"So I think that this is just another of those knee-jerk reactions to the story that developed last week."

The First Minister said he wants the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to clarify whether there are continuing investigations into the cases where letters have been issued to On the Runs.

Peter Robinson welcomed the Secretary of State's remarks but said it was now the turn of the PSNI to issue a clarification.

Feared arrest

"That's a vital area. Because effectively without those ongoing investigations into those cases then largely it is immunity - the cases are closed. So I think we want that clarification from the PSNI," he said.

On Monday, Mr Robinson suggested that police and the Northern Ireland 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 escaped prisoners or those who feared arrest for paramilitary crimes connected to the Northern Ireland Troubles committed in the UK before the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.

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

Peter Robinson
Image caption First Minister Peter Robinson has welcomed the secretary of state's remarks

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.

Northern Ireland's Chief Constable Matt Baggott has rejected claims that the letters amounted to an amnesty.

Two inquiries are to be held into the letters.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has announced it will hold an inquiry, and an independent judge-led inquiry has been announced by Prime Minister David Cameron.

The full Martin McGuinness interview can be heard on Radio Ulster's Inside Politics on BBC iPlayer Radio

Related Internet links

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