Northern Ireland

On the Runs: Peter Robinson accused of U-turn

Peter Robinson at a DUP press conference
Image caption First Minister Peter Robinson said he was "satisfied" by the terms of the judge-led inquiry at a DUP press conference on Thursday

Northern Ireland's first minister has been accused of doing a U-turn in the row over the secret On the Run letters.

Peter Robinson had threatened to resign unless there was a judicial inquiry into official government letters given to more than 180 paramilitary suspects.

He has now withdrawn his threat, saying he was happy with the terms of a judge-led review set up by David Cameron.

But the TUV leader Jim Allister said the review is a long way from what Mr Robinson had originally demanded.

Mr Allister accused Mr Robinson of having "buckled within 24 hours of playing the hard man".


Details of the secret letters and the government's On the Runs "administrative scheme" came to light after the trial of a man suspected of the IRA bombing of Hyde Park in 1982 collapsed in London.

John Downey, from County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, had denied killing four soldiers in the attack. He received his letter in 2007 and after seeing the document, the judge stopped his trial.

After days of controversy over the revelations, Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to appoint a judge to lead a review into the On the Runs scheme.

Image caption TUV leader Jim Allister said Mr Robinson had "buckled within 24 hours"

But the TUV leader has dismissed the move as "an administrative review of the paperwork, dressed up for the gullible as something more".

'Fig leaf'

He criticised Mr Robinson for accepting the review, despite threatening to resign unless there was a "full judicial inquiry".

"What we've had is an astonishing climb down by the first minister, and he's clutching some fig leaf to himself, and the secretary of state is helping him by reiterating something that was already in the letters that these On the Runs hold - namely that if fresh evidence comes they could perhaps be interviewed again.

"There's nothing new in that," Mr Allister added.

'No immunity'

However, Mr Robinson said he was "satisfied with the response" from the government.

"I think the prime minister and the secretary of state have been prompt, they have dealt with the issues seriously and in the manner that is satisfactory to me."

Mr Robinson added he no longer intended to quit as first minister, "on the basis if you get what you want, why on earth would you want to resign?"

Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, said the letters "do not confer an immunity and never did."

"If new evidence emerges, the individuals will be pursued for arrest and prosecution exactly like anybody else," she added.

'No compulsion'

Ms Villiers said the judge-led review would investigate how the government's On the Run scheme operated and "the facts of what happened".

She confirmed that witnesses would not be compelled to give evidence during the review.

"The judge will be able to conduct interviews. We're not talking about compulsion in relation to individuals but we would expect civil servants and police officers to co-operate where interviews are requested by the judge," Ms Villiers said.

She added that "other interviews can be conducted with other individuals where they are willing to do so".

The secretary of state said the review would focus "primarily on documents" and the judge would be given access to all relevant government papers.