Judge promises ‘rigorous’ probe of fugitive republicans scheme

Lady Justice Heather Hallett
Lady Justice Heather Hallett

A judge investigating a Government scheme to deal with fugitive republicans has pledged to conduct a “rigorous” probe.

Lady Justice Heather Hallett – appointed to conduct the review ordered by the Prime Minister – has been promised full co-operation and access to all relevant material by official departments and agencies.

She said: “Although appointed by Government, I will carry out my task independently and impartially.”

David Cameron announced the inquiry after the collapse of a case against a man accused of the IRA’s Hyde Park bomb in 1982; an attack that killed four soldiers.

The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, was halted last month when it emerged he was wrongly sent a so-called letter of assurance informing him the authorities in the UK were not looking for him.

Downey, who was actually wanted by detectives in London, had denied the murder of the four soldiers.

The row deepened when it emerged that around 190 letters had in fact been sent to on the runs (OTRs) under a scheme agreed by the previous Labour Government and Sinn Fein.

Lady Justice Hallett said: “I intend to conduct a full and rigorous examination of the administrative scheme from its inception to date.”

She is to:

:: Seek independent expert assistance to examine relevant police databases relating to all recipients of letters of assurance.

:: Examine documentation relating to the scheme and individuals held by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Metropolitan Police, Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Office, Cabinet Office and the Attorney General.

:: Interview politicians, civil servants and police officers involved in the OTR administrative scheme.

She said: “No individual or organisation is on trial.

“However, I am seeking to establish the facts and, where necessary, accountability in relation to what happened, ie how the scheme evolved and who was or is responsible for its operation.”

She said while it was a matter for police and prosecutors to determine whether evidence exists to warrant an arrest, it was a matter of fact whether somebody was wanted.

Lady Justice Hallett added: “As well as the independent analysis of the databases, I intend to sample a number of case files during my examination of police and prosecution records, to ascertain whether or not any other recipients of the letters have been told they are not of interest to the police when in fact they are.”

DUP Policing Board member Jonathan Craig MLA said yesterday he was “pleased” that the PSNI had confirmed to him that they will be “reviewing the evidence against all of those who have received these so-called comfort letters in order to establish if there is scope for prosecutions to proceed”.

A PSNI spokesman said it had advised the Policing Board earlier this month that “cases involving 228 named individuals would be re-examined”.