Northern Ireland

OTR letters: Theresa Villiers says names to remain confidential

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionNorthern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers was appearing before the committee for a second time

Lawyers have advised the government not to disclose the names of republicans who received letters as part of the On the Runs scheme, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said.

More than 200 letters were sent to paramilitary suspects who were informed they were no longer wanted by police.

Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee have repeatedly called for the names to be disclosed.

However, Ms Villiers told the committee that this was not likely to happen.

"The advice of lawyers is very clear, that disclosure of the names of the individuals who received OTR (On the Runs) letters could make future prosecution more difficult because of the public perception that anyone who received an OTR letter was a terrorist," she said.

"That of course, as this committee will appreciate, isn't the case."

County Donegal man John Downey is the only person known to have received a letter of assurance stating that he was not wanted for arrest or questioning by the police.

This is because he relied on it to avoid prosecution for the murders of four soldiers in the IRA's Hyde Park bombing in July 1982.

The attack killed Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright, Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper and Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young.

The collapse of Mr Downey's trial in February 2014 brought the OTR scheme to public attention.

The committee held its last evidence-gathering session on Monday, and it hopes to publish its findings next month.

Image caption The committee of MPs is aiming to publish its findings next month

Ms Villiers said the scheme was not an amnesty, and if it was, her government would have closed it down immediately.

In her second appearance before the committee, she told MPs that she would have expected former Prime Minister Tony Blair to have known that letters were being sent to OTRs informing them of their legal status.

Last week, Mr Blair told the committee he was surprised to hear that such letters had been sent.

Ms Villiers added that she was not aware of MI5 having any role to play in the scheme.

Mr Blair told the committee that the Northern Ireland peace process would probably have collapsed without the scheme.

It began while Mr Blair was prime minister and was set up in 1999, following talks with Sinn Féin.

The committee has heard evidence from senior police officers and politicians, including Ms Villiers and a number of her predecessors.

More on this story

Around the BBC