Northern Ireland

On the Runs cast long shadow over Northern Ireland in 2014

John Downey Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption The Crown Prosecution Service had wanted to charge John Downey with the murders of four soldiers in the IRA's Hyde Park bombing

It was a year over which the past once again cast a long shadow.

John Downey was a name known to very few until he walked free from the Old Bailey in London in February.

He left by a side door to avoid the cameras, but his face and story dominated the headlines for days afterwards.

The Crown Prosecution Service had wanted to charge the Donegal man with the murders of four soldiers in the IRA's Hyde Park bombing in 1982.

In a series of private court hearings held behind closed doors, his lawyers argued that a prosecution would be a breach of a promise given by Tony Blair's government as a vital part of the peace process.

They said he should not face trial because he had been sent a letter assuring him he was not wanted for arrest or questioning by the PSNI or any other police force in the UK.

The assurance from the Northern Ireland Office was based on information provided by the PSNI.

It emerged that the letter had been sent by mistake and that the PSNI was aware that John Downey was in fact wanted by police in London, but did not pass that information on.

Despite the mistake, the Old Bailey judge accepted the argument from his lawyers and ruled that he could not stand trial.

Mr Justice Sweeney said the government's failure to correct the error meant the prosecution case amounted to an abuse of process.

The secret court hearings shed light upon secret contacts between the government and Sinn Féin on the highly sensitive issue of the so-called On the Runs - escaped republican prisoners or those who feared arrest for IRA killings and attacks before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

It was later revealed that so called letters of assurance were sent to around 200 republicans.

The judge's ruling sparked unionist outrage.

What started as a story about the collapse of a trial, soon became a story about the possible collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Image caption Peter Robinson described the letters as "get out of jail free cards"

First Minister Peter Robinson described the letters as "get out of jail free cards". He threatened to withdraw from the assembly unless there was an inquiry, and said the letters should be rescinded.

The government responded by appointing Lady Justice Hallett to conduct an inquiry, and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers gave assurances that the letters did not amount to an amnesty, and would not prevent prosecutions if new evidence against the individuals emerged.

That mirrored caveats contained in the letters, which stated that any assurances given were based on "evidence currently available".

That position was later reinforced by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, who said the letters were "largely worthless" if new evidence emerged.

In her report, Lady Justice Hallett said the On the Runs scheme was unprecedented and flawed, but not unlawful. She rejected claims that the letters amounted to an effective amnesty.

She also rejected unionist claims that it had been a secret scheme. The judge said its existence had been "kept below the radar" due to its political sensitivity, but that it would be wrong to characterise it as secret.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster is also conducting its own inquiry.

Its members expressed shock when PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris revealed that 95 of the individuals who had been sent letters of assurance were linked to nearly 300 murders.

The committee will continue taking evidence this month. Next week, it will hear from two senior civil servants from the Northern Ireland Office who were involved in the administration of the scheme.

Image caption Tony Blair has been summoned to appear before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee this month

It also hopes to hear from former prime minister Tony Blair, whose government established the scheme.

The committee has summoned Mr Blair to appear on 14 January, but he has not yet responded. If he fails to appear he will be declared to be in contempt of parliament.

A new PSNI legacy unit has taken over responsibility for reviewing all of the letters sent to On the Runs to establish whether any others were sent by mistake.

The police have said people who received letters could face questioning and possible prosecution if their letters were sent by mistake, or new evidence emerges that was not available at the time they were sent.

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