Northern Ireland

OTR review: Most high-profile case among PSNI errors

Lady Justice Hallett Image copyright Judicial Communications Office
Image caption Lady Justice Hallett said the way the PSNI's Operation Rapid was working at that time the On The Runs letters were issued had created "the potential for serious mistakes"

A terrorist suspect, described as "the most high-profile of all the On The Runs (OTRs)", was almost given an OTR assurance letter in error.

The finding was made by Lady Justice Hallett, in her review of the operation of the government's On The Runs scheme.

She said the high-profile suspect was in line for a letter until prosecutors recognised the name and queried it with police, who subsequently apologised.

The error was one of a number of police failings identified in the review.

The On the Runs administrative scheme was set up in 2007 as part of the Northern Ireland peace process.

The aim was to deal with republicans who were suspected of, but who had not been convicted, of Troubles-related terror offences.

'Conspiracy to murder'

The individual described by Lady Justice Hallett's review as the "most high-profile of all the OTRs" was one of two republicans who almost got government letters by mistake in 2008, even though the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had been told they were both still wanted.

Neither republican was wanted by the PSNI, but both were being sought for offences in Great Britain, including conspiracy to murder.

They were on course to be issued with letters assuring them they were not wanted by any police force in the UK.

However, a senior figure in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions recognised the name of one of the republicans, who had a notorious reputation and was well known to be wanted.

The Hallett review found that a civilian official working on Operation Rapid - the PSNI team tasked with assessing the OTR cases - had already identified the problem with the two unconnected republicans and alerted a senior police officer.

Ten days later however, the PSNI still sent two letters to the Public Prosecution Service, saying the pair were not wanted for questioning.

The police later apologised for the error.

The Hallett review states: "The fact that a letter was sent by the PSNI to the PPS in respect of a person of such notoriety, who was well known to be 'wanted', does suggest that the way in which Operation Rapid was working at that time was creating the potential for serious mistakes.

"However, in relation to this particular error, no consequence flowed from it since it was resolved between the PSNI and the PPS before any further communication was made back to the NIO and Sinn Féin."

Mix-up

The following year, the Crown Prosecution Service made a decision not to prosecute the two republicans for the offences in England and they got their OTR letters.

In addition to the two who almost got letter in error, there were a further two cases in which suspects did receive assurance letters, apparently as the result of mistakes.

In the first, a mix-up over a suspect's date of birth led to the PSNI checking police databases using incorrect information and finding no record that the person was wanted for questioning.

It later emerged that a suspect with the same name and year of birth, but with a different birthday than the date supplied to police, was a wanted suspect.

In the second case, a republican who was suspected of terrorism offences in 1970s and a further serious offence in 2003 got one of the letters.

Royal pardon

When the letter was sent from the PSNI to the office of the DPP, it included the wording "on the basis of the information currently available, there is no outstanding direction for prosecution in Northern Ireland, there are no warrants in existence nor are you wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charge by the police".

There was no reference to the 2003 offence and a "wanted" flag in relation to the crime was later removed from the police computer system, at the same time that it was done for the 1970 offences.

The Hallet review said the PSNI is aware of the "circumstances of this case".

It has also emerged that one of the IRA men who got the Royal Prerogative of Mercy in 2000 was suspected of complicity in a murder shortly after it was granted.

The review found the alleged offence was committed after police checks were carried out to ensure he was not wanted by either the Royal Ulster Constabulary or any other UK force.

'No explanation'

The report does not give any details about the killing or in which jurisdiction it took place.

The Hallett Review also notes that on 27 June 2007, a senior PSNI officer gave a written reassurance to the Northern Ireland Office that checks were being made with Gardaí (Irish police) on whether OTR suspects were wanted in the Republic of Ireland.

However, Lady Justice Hallett said that "all of those who have been interviewed by my review team and who were involved with Operation Rapid have said that checks were not made with An Garda Síochána".

She added: "No explanation has been provided to me as to how the assurance that checks were made with the Garda (when they were not) was included in this letter."

Fingerprint evidence

Lady Justice Hallett also said she had seen no evidence to suggest that the Metropolitan Police Service's Counter Terrorism Command (CTC) had "any awareness of what Operation Rapid was".

Her review of the On the Runs scheme was ordered after the murder trial of John Downey, who was suspected of carrying out the IRA bombing of Hyde Park in 1982, collapsed.

Mr Downey had mistakenly been issued with a letter assuring him the PSNI was not aware of any interest in him from any other UK force, despite the Met having fingerprint evidence linking Mr Downey to the Hyde Park bomb.

During his trial, Mr Downey denied involvement in the bombing.

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