On the Run scheme devoid of morality says Nigel Dodds

John Downey The collapse of John Downey's trial last month sparked the On the Runs crisis

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The scheme that led to more than 190 letters being issued to Irish republican On the Runs "was devoid of morality", MPs have been told.

The DUP's Nigel Dodds told a Commons debate the scheme was a "dirty deal, done behind the backs of everyone".

MPs are debating the background to, and implications of, the judgment in the case of John Downey.

He was accused of the 1982 IRA murder of four soldiers in the Hyde Park bombing.

Last month, a judge at the Old Bailey in London halted the trial because Mr Downey had a letter from the Northern Ireland Office assuring him that he was not wanted by the police.

This was despite the fact that police in Northern Ireland knew he was still being sought by Scotland Yard.

Mr Dodds said that as the scheme related to Mr Downey, it had amounted to an amnesty.

He said "the anger in the community, not just unionists, is real".

The North Belfast MP also said the idea that his party and other unionists knew about the scheme "doesn't wash" and said that had it not been for the Downey, case politicians would still be "in the dark" about it.

He said the scheme had been "characterised by years of deceit" and had not been subject to "public scrutiny or debate".

The chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Laurence Robertson, said he found it extraordinary that the judgment in the Downey case seemed to treat the possession of a letter from the government as having greater importance than a multiple murder charge.

Mr Robertson described the wording of the letter to Mr Downey as ambiguous and "weak and flimsy".

DUP Upper Bann MP David Simpson suggested to Mr Robertson that it was possible the possession of a letter may not have been sufficient without political influence.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve said any decisions taken by the Crown Prosecution Service could not be taken on a political basis.

He described the Downey judgment as straightforward and said it was not possible to appeal against it because there was no prospect of success.

Naomi Long said to suggest the scheme "flowed naturally from the Good Friday Agreement was absolutely false".

She said the people of Northern Ireland had been given no opportunity to vote on the issue.

Gerald Howarth questioned why Bloody Sunday soldiers should have confidence in the Police Service of Northern Ireland

The East Belfast MP added that in the Downey case, the intent behind the letter he received, rather that the content of it, seemed to be more important in terms of the collapse of the case.

She said "secret dealing would end up being the undoing of the peace process, not its underpinning".

Lady Sylvia Hermon referred to the scheme as "these tawdry, scheming, dirty little letters".

Aldershot MP Gerald Howarth, who represents soldiers who were on duty during the Bloody Sunday killings in Londonderry in 1972, questioned why they should have confidence in the PSNI given what he described as its "screw up" of the case against Mr Downey.

That prompted a retort from the DUP's Sammy Wilson who blamed government ministers and politicians not the police.

Shaun Woodward, who had been secretary state for a short time when the letter to John Downey was issued, said he was aware of the administrative scheme, but said he viewed it as a statement of facts as to whether people were wanted by UK police forces.

He said the Downey case made him concerned that the letters could be viewed as more than a statement of facts.

Current Secretary of State Theresa Villiers reiterated several times during the debate that the letters were statements of fact and were not amnesties or "get out of jail free cards".

'Rigorous and impartial'

Meanwhile, a judge investigating the scheme has said her review would be "rigorous".

The independent review led by Lady Justice Heather Hallett was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Lady Hallett said the review would be "independent and impartial".

She said her review would:

  • Seek independent expert assistance to examine relevant police databases relating to all recipients of letters of assurance.
  • Examine documentation relating to the scheme and individuals held by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Metropolitan Police, Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Office, Cabinet Office and the Attorney General.
  • Interview politicians, civil servants and police officers involved in the on-the-runs administrative scheme.

"I intend to conduct a full and rigorous examination of the administrative scheme from its inception to date," Lady Hallett added.

"I have been promised full co-operation and access to all relevant material by the relevant government departments and agencies.

"No individual or organisation is on trial. However, I am seeking to establish the facts and, where necessary, accountability in relation to what happened, ie, how the scheme evolved and who was or is responsible for its operation.

"As well as the independent analysis of the databases, I intend to sample a number of case files during my examination of police and prosecution records, to ascertain whether or not any other recipients of the letters have been told they are not of interest to the police when in fact they are."

On the Runs are escaped prisoners or those who feared arrest for paramilitary crimes connected to the Northern Ireland Troubles committed in the UK before the Good Friday Agreement.

The police in Northern Ireland are also reviewing the process that led to the issuing of the letters.

The letters told the individuals concerned that they were not wanted for questioning or prosecution for any paramilitary offences committed in the UK before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

A team of 16 detectives has been assigned to the review. They will investigate the circumstances of each of those who received a letter.

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