Northern Ireland

Angry exchanges at Policing Board over On the Runs

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Media captionThere were angry exchanges between the DUP and the chief constable at the Policing Board

There have been angry exchanges between the DUP and the chief constable at the Policing Board over the issue of On the Runs on Thursday.

Matt Baggott insisted the board had been fully briefed about the PSNI's role in the scheme.

He also reacted angrily to a claim that he had not been fully honest with the board.

A political crisis erupted last week over secret letters sent by the government to nearly 200 republicans.

The letters assured the recipients they were not being sought by police.

There were smiles and pleasantries as Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie attended her last Policing Board meeting before retiring at the end of this month.

But the gloves quickly came off when the issue of the On the Runs scheme was discussed.

The PSNI called its process for checking the legal status of the On the Runs Operation Rapid.

DUP board members questioned why the name of that operation had never been mentioned by the police and said they had never been told letters were being sent to people telling them they were not wanted for prosecution.

The party's Jonathan Craig said: "Quite frankly chief, I think you're being disingenuous with us here because this is the only operation that was never named.

"Never named to this board and never named to us as politicians and there has to something behind this. Why were we not told the name?"

Mr Baggott replied: "Can I caution the member that under the code of conduct that he does not have the right to question the integrity of the members of the command team or myself."

After that, Mr Craig continued: "I have never heard an explanation as to why Operation Rapid as a term, was never made clear to the board.

"You've stated that there's hundreds and hundreds of operations out there and the odd thing for the board is we get lists upon lists upon lists of the names of these operations exactly what they are, why they're taking place.

"But this operation which goes to the heart of our justice system and the integrity of that system why was all of this process not given to the board and explained?"

Mr Baggott replied: "Let me be very clear about this, the Policing Board was briefed in 2010 fully about the existence of a process.

"It was followed up by letter with specific numbers of those involved in that process

"So it is not right to say you were not briefed as a Policing Board, you were.

"Let me clear about this, you were briefed."

Airport arrest

The police told the board they first heard that letters of assurance were being sent after John Downey was arrested at Gatwick Airport in May last year.

A judge last week said he would not stand trial for the murders of four soldiers because he had such a letter, which was sent in error.

The PSNI said it immediately suspended Operation Rapid.

The BBC has obtained a copy of figures submitted to the board that illustrate the extent of the scheme - and the fact that not every On the Run was told they would not be prosecuted if they came back to Northern Ireland.

They revealed that the PSNI was asked to clarify legal status of 228 people.

Of those, 192 were told they were not wanted for questioning or arrest.

Fifteen were actively wanted by police.

Eight were told they would be returned to prison but released immediately under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Checks on six people were suspended after John Downey's arrest - three of those named were later arrested and one of them convicted,

Two are the subject of ongoing investigative. Files on the remaining two have been sent to the public prosecution service.

Meanwhile, the assembly justice committee is to interview senior public figures about the matter of the letters.

Justice Minister David Ford, his permanent secretary, Nick Perry, the Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory, and other witnesses are to be invited to brief the committee.

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