Northern Ireland

On the Run scheme: Theresa Villiers repeats warning in Commons

Theresa Villiers
Image caption Theresa Villiers told the House of Commons the "recipients should cease to place any reliance on those letters" as any kind of bar to a future prosecution

The Northern Ireland secretary has repeated her warning over of the status of government letters sent to so-called "on the run" paramilitary suspects.

About 200 republicans were told they were not wanted by police in a scheme that only came to light when one letter caused an IRA bomb trial to collapse.

Theresa Villiers has told the House of Commons the "recipients should cease to place any reliance on those letters".

Her statement had been expected, after she appeared at an inquiry last week.

Ms Villiers had promised to publicly outline the government's current position on the letters when she was questioned by MPs during a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into the scheme.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, she said that the scheme was never intended to prevent prosecutions in cases where new evidence emerged or existing evidence was subjected to fresh assessment.

She added that the letters "do not represent any commitment that the recipient will not be investigated or prosecuted, if that is considered appropriate on the basis of the evidence available now".

"All the evidence will be taken into account, regardless of whether it was available before the letters were sent or whether it has emerged subsequently," Ms Villiers said.

"This does not mean that all those who received 'not wanted' statements in the past are now considered 'wanted'.

"It simply means that they are in the same position as any other member of the public.

"If there is considered to be evidence or intelligence of their involvement in crime, they will be investigated by the police and if the evidence is sufficient to warrant prosecution, they will be prosecuted," Ms Villiers added.

The letters were sent to scores of republicans who were suspected of, but who had never been charged with paramilitary crimes carried out during the Troubles.

The On the Runs scheme came to international attention earlier this year, after it caused an IRA murder trial to collapse at the Old Bailey in London.

Image caption The collapse of John Downey's trial earlier this year sparked the On the Runs crisis

County Donegal man John Downey had been charged over the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, that killed four soldiers.

Mr Downey, who was convicted of IRA membership in the 1970s, had denied murdering Roy Bright, Dennis Daly, Simon Tipper and Geoffrey Young and conspiring to cause an explosion.

His lawyers successfully argued his prosecution was an abuse of process, citing a government letter he received in 2007, telling him he was not wanted by any UK police force.

The details contained in the letter were incorrect, as Mr Downey was still being sought by the Met.

On Tuesday, the secretary of state said she had taken advice and had decided that making a statement to the House of Commons was the "fairest, promptest and most effective way to reduce the risk to future prosecutions".

Ms Villiers said the recipients of the letters "now have fair and clear warning that such comfort as they may have derived from the statements can no longer be taken".

She added: "I will be drawing it to the attention of each of those who made requests on behalf of named individuals, reflecting the channels through which the communication of the original letters was made."

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