Republicans warned on OTR letters

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers

Republicans who received letters from the British government assuring them they were not being sought by the authorities can no longer rely on them, the Northern Ireland Secretary has announced.

Theresa Villiers told a Westminster committee a clear statement from her on the status of the documents was needed because a judge-led review of the so-called on-the-run scheme had showed that the accuracy of the letters could not be guaranteed.

“No-one should rely on them any longer to regulate their behaviour,” she told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

“If they drew some comfort from those letters in the past they should no longer draw comfort from them in the future.”

The issue was thrust into public prominence in February when the case against a man accused of murdering four soldiers in the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing collapsed because it emerged he had been sent one of the letters in error, when in fact police were seeking him.

The Old Bailey trial judge found that John Downey’s arrest in the UK last year, when he had been told he was free to return, represented an abuse of process - not that the letter conferred immunity from prosecution.

Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, denied involvement in the 1982 attack that killed four soldiers.

In July the judge-led review of the scheme, which was agreed between Sinn Féin and the last Labour administration, found that it was systematically flawed in operation but not unlawful in principle.

Lady Justice Hallett said a “catastrophic” error had been made in the Downey case; she insisted the letters of assurance did not amount to amnesties or get-out-of-jail-free cards.

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