Northern Ireland

Ian Paisley Jr challenges Peter Hain over On the Runs

Peter Hain Image copyright PA
Image caption Peter Hain was NI Secretary from May 2005 until June 2007

Peter Hain has been challenged over his claim he had never heard of the Hyde Park bombing suspect John Downey before the end of last year.

The former secretary of state was appearing at a Northern Ireland Select Committee hearing on On the Runs.

It is examining how over 200 people were told they were no longer wanted for paramilitary crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

On The Runs are those suspected, but not convicted of paramilitary offences.

The scheme became the focus of controversy after the collapse of a case against Mr Downey in February for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

Judge Mr Justice Sweeney dismissed the case after it emerged Mr Downey had a letter from government officials mistakenly telling him he would not face criminal charges for the bombing. It emerged during the case that several hundred letters had been issued.

At Wednesday's committee hearing into the scheme, Mr Paisley asked Mr Hain if he had read the letter sent to him by the attorney general on 22 February, 2006, that named Mr Downey on a list of individuals Sinn Féin wanted included in the OTR scheme.

Mr Hain said he could not recall the letter and suggested it might be an oversight on his part. He asked what the purpose of the letter was and when he was informed, said: "I'm sorry. I'm not denying the letter exists if you have it. But I don't recall it at all."

The former secretary of state, in an affidavit to Mr Justice Sweeney, had said he only became aware of Mr Downey's case when he was approached by the suspect's solicitor at the end of last year.

Mr Paisley put it to the former secretary of state that if he had in fact read the attorney general's letter then the statement he made to Mr Justice Sweeney was "inaccurate, some may say untruthful."

Mr Hain shook his head and replied "no." He added: "I do not recall ever knowing... I'm sure I did not know who was being considered by the PSNI and law officers under the administrative scheme. I've said that. I was not involved in the mechanics of the scheme."

He said he did not recognise the letter, although he did acknowledge that such correspondence from the attorney general would have been "unusual".

It also emerged in committee that the decision to include Mr Downey's name in the OTR scheme was taken on Mr Hain's last day as secretary of state in June 2007. He said he was not aware of this.

Mr Hain also told MPs Sinn Féin never lobbied him on behalf of individuals to be included in the scheme.

"Do you not think that's very hard to believe?" Mr Paisley Jr asked.

"I'm telling you it's true whether you believe it or not, Ian," Mr Hain replied.

In a sharp exchange, Mr Hain said if Mr Paisley was accusing him of misleading the committee, he should "say so".

Mr Paisley denied he was doing so: "Believe you me, if I was accusing you, you'd know about it."

Mr Hain said several times he was not involved in the mechanics of the scheme, adding there was no interference with the independence of the police.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan believes the issue of On the Runs will probably end up before the courts

"The decision to include John Downey was nothing to do with me. That was a matter for PSNI officials, for PSNI officers, for the law officers as well, and finally for Northern Ireland office officials," he said.

"It would have been - and I repeat, Ian, - absolutely improper for me to have got involved in the assessment of who or who did not receive those letters."

Mr Paisley acknowledged this adding: "That would not be the accusation."

Lady Sylvia Hermon, an independent MP for North Down, suggested that government had gone "behind the back of [former first minister] Ian Paisley" to deliver the scheme.

Mr Hain insisted the scheme was not hidden from the public referring to statements to Parliament. Lady Hermon asked where the words "administrative scheme" had appeared in Mr Hain's answers to parliamentary questions.

Mr Hain rejected any suggest the scheme to deal with OTRs was done with Sinn Féin "behind Parliament's back".

He said the letters did not amount to "a get out of jail free card".

'Transparency and truth'

Earlier, Northern Ireland's top judge said he believes public confidence in the criminal justice system will be regained if On the Runs cases come before the courts.

Sir Declan Morgan told the BBC's Talkback programme that On The Runs legal cases should be welcomed as this would lead to transparency and truth.

"I can't talk about the On the Runs issue because it is an issue which I think possibly, or even probably, is going to go into the courts," he said.

"It may well be the subject of arguments and decision.

"I think the fact that the courts will do that in a transparent and open way with access of the public to everything that goes on within the principle of open justice is actually positive.

"It may be at the moment that it all looks rather fraught.

"But in the end, I would hope that the public will gain confidence from the fact that the courts will examine these things and expose wrongdoing if it is there and otherwise explain events that have occurred."

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