The chief constable has insisted members of his oversight body – the Policing Board – were fully briefed about a process to deal with on the run IRA suspects.
In heated exchanges during a public board meeting in Belfast, Matt Baggott rejected claims from a Democratic Unionist member that he was being “disingenuous” in regard to the amount of information the PSNI disclosed on the controversial scheme that saw around 190 republicans sent letters that assured them they were not wanted by the authorities.
Responding to DUP member Jonathan Craig’s claims, Mr Baggott said during a Policing Board meeting in 2010 the on the runs (OTR) issue was discussed and further details – including the number of OTRs involved in the process – were sent in a follow-up letter to members.
“Let me be clear about this,” said Mr Baggott. “You were briefed.”
Details about letters sent to the OTRs became the focus of intense public debate last week when the case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed in dramatic fashion.
John Downey, 62, from Donegal, denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London.
The case against him was ended because Government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.
But the collapse shone light on the wider policy of sending such letters to OTRs, with many politicians, particularly unionists, reacting with fury, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.
The crisis brought the Stormont Executive to the verge of collapse with DUP First Minister Peter Robinson threatening to resign – an ultimatum he withdrew after Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry into the scheme – which was the product of a deal struck between the previous Labour Government and Sinn Fein in the early 2000s.
But Sinn Fein has insisted rival politicians at Stormont were aware of the OTR scheme for a long time – noting references to it in a number of public forums, reports and publications in recent years, including the exchanges during the 2010 Policing Board meeting.
The PSNI has insisted the letters did not amount to an amnesty or get out of jail free card and the information it provided was merely a factual statement clarifying whether certain individuals were being sought by the police at a particular point in time.
Police did not have responsibility for sending out the assurance letters – with the outcome of their case reviews being forwarded to prosecutors, then the Attorney General’s office in London, and finally to the NIO which drafted and sent the documents.
Mr Craig yesterday insisted the board exchanges in 2010 did not amount to a full briefing on the issue, and noted that the name police had given the operation to handle the scheme – Rapid – had never once been mentioned at the board.
“Quite frankly chief I think you are being disingenuous because this is the only operation that is never named, never named to this board and never named to us as politicians,” he said.
Mr Baggott reacted in strong terms to the allegation.
“Can I caution the member on the code of conduct that he does not have a right to question the integrity of the members of the command team or myself,” he said.
The chief constable, who later asked Mr Craig not to interrupt him when he was speaking, added: “Let me be very clear about this – the Policing Board was briefed in 2010 fully about the existence of a process, where the information came from in relation to that process, and it was followed up by a 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.”
It is understood the issue of OTRs was also discussed during a private meeting of the board in 2007, but Mr Baggott said he could not comment on that, as it covered a period before he came to office.
Mr Craig said: “The board was given an answer to a question that was raised by a political colleague of mine, it was not a briefing in the sense that someone requested a briefing on this process, because a process was not known of by the board.”