Republicans ‘freedom’ letters probe reveals two more possible blunders

John Downey was accused of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing in which soldiers and horses died. Picture:PA
John Downey was accused of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing in which soldiers and horses died. Picture:PA
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A JUDGE-LED review ordered after an IRA bomb suspect was wrongly given a government assurance he was not wanted by UK police has identified two other cases where similar errors were apparently made.

Lady Justice Hallett, who was asked by Prime Minister David Cameron to examine the administrative process for dealing with so-called “on-the-runs”, found systematic flaws in its operation but concluded it was not unlawful in principle.

The judge said the scheme, agreed between the last Labour government and Sinn Fein, was not well publicised, and effectively kept “below the radar”, but was not secret.

“The administrative scheme did not amount to an amnesty,” she said. “Suspected terrorists were not handed a ‘get out of jail free card’.”

Under the scheme, which started in 2000, almost 190 republicans who had left the UK jurisdiction received assurances they were not being sought by British authorities. A number who applied for assurances were not granted them because they were considered as wanted.

The probe by Lady Justice Hallett was ordered in the wake of the high-profile collapse of a case against County Donegal man John Downey, who was accused of murdering four soldiers in the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing in 1982.

The prosecution of Mr Downey, 62, was halted at the Old Bailey in February after Mr Justice Sweeney found he had been wrongly sent one of the government’s letters of assurance in 2007 when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him.

The judge decided his arrest, when he travelled through Gatwick airport last year, and the subsequent prosecution had therefore represented an abuse of process. Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.

Police in Northern Ireland were heavily criticised over the error in the Downey case but the court proceedings also shone a light on the wider administrative scheme of sending assurance letters to on-the-runs.

In her review published yesterday, Lady Justice Hallett outlined details of the two other cases where letters were sent in error. The first was the use of an incorrect date of birth to search a police database, possibly missing an offence potentially linked to an individual.

An individual with the same name and same year of birth was wanted for a terrorist offence. It has not yet been established if this was the individual who received the letter.

Secondly, an individual who was wanted for an offence committed after the 1998 Good Friday peace accord was sent a letter with a general assurance they were not wanted.

The origin of the mistake lay in the fact the police believed they were only searching for pre-1998 offences.

The scheme saw names of individuals passed to the government, the majority through Sinn Fein. The names were then passed to police and prosecutors to assess their status.

A report on each individual was sent back to the government and, if they were declared as not being wanted, a letter of assurance was then issued to the individuals.

The government accepted the report’s findings.

Outlining the findings to parliament yesterday, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said: “I fully accept the Hallett Report’s conclusions and recommendations and am determined that the government will act on them.

“But, as I have said before, as far as this government is concerned, the OTR scheme is over.”