Northern Ireland

On the Run scheme: Owen Paterson criticised over OTR letters

Owen Paterson Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Paterson told the committee he only became aware of the letters scheme when he became Northern Ireland secretary back in 2010

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson has described the issuing of letters to suspected On the Run paramilitaries as "routine" and said they were not an "overriding priority" when he was in office.

He was giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs committee in Westminster.

It is investigating the On the Run letters scheme.

Mr Paterson faced criticism from a number of Northern Ireland MPs.

The investigation by the cross-party committee was set up after the case against John Downey, who was accused of the IRA's Hyde Park bombing, collapsed.

North Down Independent MP Lady Hermon and the East Belfast MP Naomi Long wanted to know why Mr Paterson had not informed the Northern Ireland Executive, and in particular, the Justice Minister David Ford about the letters scheme.

Lady Hermon asked Owen Paterson if it was "a good idea to keep him in the dark".

Ms Long suggested that it would have been a "courtesy" to inform Mr Ford about the letters.

Mr Paterson said he only became aware of the letters scheme when he became Northern Ireland secretary back in 2010.

In response to why he never discussed the issue with Mr Ford he replied: "His name was never mentioned. This was treated as a matter of national security. So, no it never arose."

The former secretary of state said the letters were handled by the Northern Ireland Office and he considered handing the issue over to the Northern Ireland justice department.

Mr Paterson also confirmed that he had told Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, that he was considering such a move, but he said he did not discuss the issue with Mr Ford.

Mr Paterson denied that the letters scheme was secret and he said the letters were "routine" and the scheme was "in its final stages when I came in [into office]".

The former cabinet minister also told MPs "this was a pretty routine operation by the time I turned up".

The Upper Bann DUP MP David Simpson questioned whether senior police officers knew about the scheme.

He said the letters had "inflicted pain and torture to the victims".

The South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell said he felt the Northern Ireland parties with the exception of Sinn Féin had been kept in the dark about the letters.

The SDLP MP said politicians did "not genuinely know" about the letters and he criticised the "secrecy around" them.

The Northern Ireland Affairs committee will hold more evidence sessions in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, the Northern Ireland secretary repeated her warning over of the status of the OTR letters.

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

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".

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.

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.

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