On the Runs: Nick Perry, top DoJ civil servant, knew about scheme
The most senior civil servant in Northern Ireland's Justice Department was aware of the On the Runs scheme in his previous job, the BBC has learned.
Nick Perry, now the permanent secretary at the Department of Justice, is a former senior government official at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
Justice Minister David Ford has said the secretary of state should have told him about the "shabby backdoor deal".
He said Mr Perry could not disclose it because of strict civil service rules.Secret letters
Sources have told the BBC that while Mr Perry was aware the scheme was operating during his time as a senior NIO official, he was not involved in its administration.
The On the Runs scheme was set up by the previous Labour government in the years following the Good Friday Agreement and was administered by the NIO.
The aim was to deal with cases of republicans who were suspected of IRA terrorism, but who were never charged or convicted of related offences.
This week, it was revealed that more than 180 republicans had received government letters, reassuring them that they were not at risk of arrest or prosecution for Troubles-related crime.
It followed the collapse of the Hyde Park bomb trial, which was stopped when it emerged the man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA bombing had received one of the letters.
John Downey, who is from County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, had denied the charges.
Following the revelations, Stormont's justice minister took to airwaves to speak of his anger at being kept in the dark about the agreement between the government and Sinn Féin.
During private hearings at the Old Bailey this month, it was revealed that Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's chief of staff, wrote to Mr Perry about the issue in June 2000.
End Quote David Ford Justice Minister
I'm not going to criticise any civil servant for adhering to the code of conduct that they're bound to operate by. That's the way the civil service works”
The letter said that Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams had called Mr Powell and told him some of his people "were becoming wobbly", that he "needed to settle them" and asked what was happening with the On the Runs.
The letter went on to say that Mr Powell had explained to the Sinn Féin leader that two more cases were to be dropped that week, and that Mr Adams needed to know how the government would deal with the On the Runs by the end of July 2000.
The Old Bailey hearings did not reveal the response to that letter, but it clearly suggests Mr Perry was familiar with the issue.'Forbidden'
He remained a senior official with the NIO for a further 10 years before joining the Department of Justice, working for Mr Ford.
But whatever Mr Perry knew about the operation of the scheme, the justice minister has said he did not tell him about it, and he understands why.
"He certainly is forbidden by the civil service code from taking information from one minister to another," Mr Ford said.
"I'm not going to criticise any civil servant for adhering to the code of conduct that they're bound to operate by. That's the way the civil service works."
The justice minister added that he will not ask his permanent secretary what he knows about the scheme because it would be inappropriate to do so.'Tales'
"If Nick Perry was an official at the NIO, his responsibility was to the secretary of state," Mr Ford said.
"When he transferred to the DoJ, he didn't bring tales from the NIO to me, just the same as senior officials - and officials have transferred under devolution from the DoJ to the NIO - they don't carry tales from the DoJ.
"Their responsibility is to the minister they work for. They carry out duties for that minister, and the day they move departments, their responsibilities change."
The justice minister confirmed that he found out about the On the Runs scheme exactly a week ago.
"I got a confidential briefing last Friday evening, after the court decision, before reporting restrictions were lifted on Tuesday," Mr Ford said.