Northern Ireland

Families of IRA Hyde Park bombing victims granted legal aid

John Downey
Image caption John Downey denied murdering the soldiers in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing

The families of four soldiers killed in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombings have been granted legal aid to take a civil case against one of the alleged bombers.

John Downey, 66, has denied murdering the soldiers.

A 2014 prosecution against him was dropped when a judge ruled an official assurance given in error meant he could not face trial.

He had an "on the run" letter telling him he was no longer a wanted man.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Four soldiers and seven horses were killed in the Hyde Park attack

The letter, which he had received in 2007, assured him he would not face arrest and prosecution for IRA crimes.

The then prime minister, David Cameron, described the letter as a "dreadful mistake".

The Hyde Park attack on 20 July 1982 killed Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright, Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper and Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young.

On Tuesday, The Sun reported that the Legal Aid Agency had confirmed that it was providing funding to the families of the victims.

Who were the on the runs?

At that time of John Downey's 2014 prosecution, Mr Justice Sweeney heard from Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly that 187 people had received "on the run" letters.

These people were either suspected of paramilitary crimes or had escaped from prison after being convicted.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement meant that anyone convicted of paramilitary crimes was eligible for early release, but the agreement did not cover on the runs.

Sinn Féin sought a scheme that would allow on the runs to return to the UK without fear that they would be arrested.

This scheme was agreed with the UK government but not disclosed to the public.

Former Ulster Unionist MP, Danny Kinahan, welcomed news of the legal aid.

Mr Kinahan, who was a former colleague of the murdered soldiers, said it should have happened "a lot sooner".

Image caption Former MP, Danny Kinahan, said the soldiers were in the "prime of their lives"

"The families of my murdered colleagues have been put through hell," he said.

"Firstly, they lost their loved ones, stolen from them in the prime of their lives.

"Then, they suffered the pain of the farce of the trial of John Downey being thrown out because of one of the despicable on-the-run letters."

Civil v criminal

Analysis, Vincent Kearney, BBC News NI home affairs correspondent

Civil action is taken to seek financial compensation, rather than a criminal conviction, and it requires a much lower standard of proof than a criminal case.

A civil court is also less stringent in terms of what can be entered as evidence.

The families involved in this case will hope their legal team will be able to use that extra latitude to put as much information as possible about the Hyde Park attack into the public domain.

But even if a judge was to rule that John Downey was liable for the Hyde Park bombing, he could not be sent to prison.

Mr Downey also cannot be compelled to attend any future civil court hearing, or to pay damages if any were to be awarded.

Relatives of 12 of the 29 people killed in the 1998 Omagh bomb attack successfully took a civil case against four men they claimed were responsible.

A judge ruled that the men were liable for the bomb and ordered them to pay £1.6m in damages.

None of them were sent to prison and the families have not received any compensation.

The Hyde Park attack is one of the most significant unsolved IRA bombings of The Troubles.

One other person was convicted in relation to the deaths before being later cleared on appeal.