Secret letter to on-the-run suspects 'not immunity'

Secret letters sent to on-the-run suspects in Northern Ireland did not amount to “immunity, exemption or amnesty from arrest”, the British Government insisted today.

Northern Ireland spokeswoman Baroness Randerson told the Lords: “They were not letters of comfort. They were factual statements.”

She said: “No recipient of such a letter should be in any doubt that if evidence emerges after the date the letter was issued in connection with terrorist offences committed before the Belfast agreement, they will be liable for arrest and prosecution.”

But former Ulster Unionist now independent crossbencher Lord Maginnis of Drumglass denounced her comments as “pie in the sky”.

He said the reality was that these people were now “free to come back without interference from the police”.

Lady Randerson denied this, saying the historical inquiries team was looking assiduously at a number of cases.

She said the whole process would be examined by the inquiry announced by the British Prime Minister last week after the letters became known about.

Messages sent to about 200 IRA on the runs informed them that they were not wanted by police.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) scheme emerged during the collapse of the trial of alleged Hyde Park bomber John Downey after police mistakenly sent him one of the letters even though he was sought by the Metropolitan Police.

Lady Randerson said that in coming to office in 2010 the North's coalition government was made aware of a list of names submitted by Sinn Féin to the previous British government under an agreement they had reached to clarify the status of on-the-runs.

Asked why such a scheme did not extend to loyalists, she said: “It is my understanding that there had been no request for a similar scheme.”

Under the scheme if it was found the person was not wanted by police and there was no prospect of any prosecution based on evidence available the individuals were informed of that by letter.

“The letters did not amount to immunity, exemption or amnesty from arrest.”

Lady Randerson said that on the basis that these were simply factual letters, the current government agreed the list of names submitted by Sinn Féin to the previous government could “continue to be checked”.

The British Government would take whatever steps were necessary to make clear that any letters issued could not be relied on to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence became available now or later.

Her comments came in third reading debate on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill as the secret letters came under fire from all sides of the House.

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