Northern Ireland

On the Runs: No Downing Street calls says Sir Hugh Orde

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Media captionSir Hugh Orde said he would have remembered such a phone call "to his dying day"

The former head of police in Northern Ireland has said if Downing Street had asked him to release prisoners he would have remembered it to his "dying day".

Sir Hugh Orde is reported to have said no such phone call was made during the seven years that he led the force.

On Wednesday, former PSNI Det Ch Supt Norman Baxter claimed Downing Street rang the chief constable's office.

He said they had asked for the release of two republican suspects. He said it was "illegal and unconstitutional'.

Mr Baxter claimed there was "a culture within the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that republicans were not prosecuted".

He also said the PSNI was scapegoated for the collapse of the John Downey case.

Mr Baxter was giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee which has begun an inquiry into the process for dealing with On the Runs (OTRs), Irish republicans who had received letters stating that they were not wanted by police for paramilitary crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

The letters came to light in February when the trial of Mr Downey for the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing was halted because he had mistakenly received one of those letters.

Mr Baxter told the committee that Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams had put pressure on Downing Street to ask for the release of Vincent McAnespie and Gerry McGeough.

They were wanted for questioning about the attempted murder of part-time UDR soldier Sammy Brush in 1981. They were arrested on 8 March 2007.

Mr Baxter said: "At 9.10pm I received a phone call from duty ACC at headquarters, Gerry Adams had telephoned Downing Street demanding their release.

"Downing Street rang the chief constable's office looking for their release and I got a phone call suggesting I should release them.

"That, in my mind, is attempting to pervert the course of justice and that was conveyed back to headquarters.

"As a police officer that is totally illegal and unconstitutional. We continued interviewing them and Mr McGeough was subsequently convicted and sentenced for attempted murder."

However, Sir Hugh who was PSNI chief constable at the time, did not remember such a call, security journalist Brian Rowan told Radio Ulster's Nolan Show on Thursday.

"I spoke to Hugh Orde yesterday and he called me this morning within the past half hour," Mr Rowan said.

"What he said to me was, that in his period here, there were occasions when politicians from both sides and all sides would have raised issues with him around arrests and other matters. He said to that: 'I told them to get lost.'"

Mr Rowan said he also told him: "If Downing Street had called me asking me to release prisoners, I would remember it to my dying day."

Image caption The collapse of John Downey's trial last month sparked the On the Runs crisis

He said Sir Hugh added: "No such call ever happened during the seven years that I was there."

Sir Hugh is due to give evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee next week.

He told Mr Rowan that he was checking his diary and notes for the evening when that call was believed to have been made. He thought he had been in the office until about 21:00 GMT.

At a meeting of the policing board on Thursday, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott refused to be drawn on the specifics of what Mr Baxter said.

He said it was important that he did not make a judgement in advance of ongoing inquiries.

However, he said: "I have asked a deputy chief constable who is responsible for issues of misconduct, to write to Mr Baxter asking him to give us an account of what happened, by who, when and to give us the detail behind his statement yesterday so we can make an objective assessment on that and see where we go.

"That will be done today and Mr Baxter will be asked to justify his comments."

The chief constable also said that he stood by his apology in the wake of comments by a judge about "catastrophic failure" in the case. He said his apology was appropriate.

Meanwhile, Gerry Adams said it was a "matter of public record" that he had called for the release of the two men.

"I also protested to the British government. I did not ask the British government to intervene with the PSNI," he said.

"My protest at that time was entirely appropriate given that the British government had given commitments to resolve the anomaly of the OTRs.

"Mr Baxter's outlandish claim that the NIO was trying to avoid arresting republicans is nonsense and ignores the virtual amnesty provided to the British Army and RUC for killing hundreds of citizens."

Mr Brush, who is now a DUP councillor said he was shocked, but not surprised by Mr Baxter's claims.

"From the revelations of the get out of jail free letters, I expected there would be more to come and I still think there will be more revelations to come yet because I think the government has behaved very badly towards the victims of terrorism in this country," he said.

"The victims of terrorism seem to be expendable, but the terrorists had to be preserved."

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