Northern Ireland

On the Runs told of arrest risk says Peter Hain

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Media captionPeter Hain: "It was clear these were not amnesties or immunities or get out of jail cards"

Secret letters sent to 187 republican paramilitary suspects made it clear they could still be arrested if other evidence emerged, former NI Secretary Peter Hain has said.

Mr Hain said the On the Runs assurances "were not immunities".

Stormont Justice Minister David Ford said government officials told him five cases were currently being considered.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has held a debate on the On the Runs scheme at the request of the first minister.

A threat by Peter Robinson to resign as Northern Ireland first minister was lifted after Prime Minister David Cameron agreed there should be a judge-led inquiry into the matter.

The inquiry will examine why 187 republican paramilitary suspects were sent letters telling them that they were no longer wanted by the police.

However, an emergency assembly debate on the letters went ahead.

Members voted in favour of a motion expressing "concern" and "disgust" over the letters. The motion was passed by 58 votes to 27.

Mr Robinson told assembly members the collapse of the case against John Downey, who denied killing four soldiers in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing, was "morally wrong and an affront to justice".

The case against Mr Downey collapsed after it emerged he had been sent a government letter in 2007 confirming he was not being pursued by UK authorities.

Mr Robinson said that if the government kept to the terms of a written statement from Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, such letters would no longer be a "free pass" enabling holders to avoid arrest or prosecution.

The DUP leader said that what had already been agreed during talks chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass on the past, parades and flags would have to be re-evaluated.

However, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the focus should remain on the Haass blueprint.

The Sinn Féin assembly member accused the DUP of "irresponsible knee-jerk politics" and "posturing" ahead of May's council and European elections.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell questioned whether other secret deals had been agreed, while Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said his party would no longer take part in the Haass process.


Earlier on Friday, Mr Hain said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had carried out a painstaking investigation to see if there was evidence of the crimes committed during the Troubles.

"They made it clear that if other evidence came to light in the future then they could well be apprehended should they came into Britain," Mr Hain said.

"And by the way, people did know about it."

Stormont Justice Minister David Ford said government officials told him five cases were currently being considered under the scheme, and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) had accepted responsibility for this.

"Now I don't like the scheme at all - it's not open, it's not transparent, it's not something that the people supported - but at least we now have established that the scheme, if it is in the process of winding up, is the responsibility of the NIO that set it up," he told the BBC.

"It is not a devolved matter and as long as I am the minister of justice, there will be no such scheme within the department."

Northern Ireland's director of public prosecutions has given his backing to the inquiry.

Barra McGrory said: "Clearly, if there is a senior judicial figure heading this inquiry, it will have integrity.

"I certainly would give my personal co-operation to it, as will the PPS.

"I think the inquiry should clear up some of the confusion and concern about these issues."

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