First Minister Peter Robinson has raised serious concerns about the revelations made by retired PSNI detective Norman Baxter in Westminster on Wednesday.
The DUP leader said that he thought Mr Baxter was “very convincing in the evidence that he gave” and that he believed the former officer had “no axe to grind” as he is no longer involved with the police.
Mr Robinson said that he shared Mr Baxter’s suggestion that the Attorney General for England and Wales should have appealed the Downey judgment.
“The more you look at that judgment, the more you learn about it, it is very clear that there would have been grounds for an appeal.
“The way the whole thing was done was that no one was aware that there was an issue until the time for an appeal had run out – the judge held back [by using reporting restrictions] the publication of the outcome until the time for the appeal had run out.
“It’s really clear that the Government didn’t want this to become a public issue. They hoped that it would go past, they would blame the police, get the chief constable to put out a statement and that’s the issue closed.”
Speaking of the evidence to the Westminster committee, the First Minister said: “There were a series of revelations, and I don’t think that is over-stating it.
“The revelation that people who lectured us, over the period where we were talking about policing and justice coming to Northern Ireland, about the need for operational independence; how politicians should never get involved in the operation of policing in Northern Ireland, yet Gerry lifts the phone to Downing Street and says ‘let that man out’.
“And what was worse – the chief constable’s office then contact the PSNI people involved, saying ‘let him out’. That’s absolutely bizarre. It’s contrary to any code that senior police officers would have signed up to when they assumed that job.
“To think that political pressure can allow somebody who ended up being convicted in the courts, yet politically they wanted him to be let out.
“That shows the kind of pressure that was on from Sinn Fein at that time and that’s why I have argued that whatever the precise text might be in any of those letters, what lay behind them was the belief on the part of the recipients that that was in effect an indicator that they would never be arrested; that that case was closed.”
He said the testimony heard at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee “indicates that the NIO – and indeed Downing Street – was injecting itself into policing and justice, and from my point of view as someone who entered politics because a friend was killed, I have to say that victims in Northern Ireland should be outraged at what has happened because we know of this case, but there could be many other cases where simply political pressure has ensured that people went free.”
Meanwhile, the NIO has said that it is for the last Government to justify the decisions which it took while in charge of the department.
An NIO spokeswoman said: “This Government has always made clear that prosecutions are entirely a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities acting independently of politicians.
“We have stated explicitly that they we do not support amnesty, immunities or exemption from prosecutions.
“For anything that might have occurred prior to May 2010, those are matters for those who were involved at the time.”
The spokeswoman also defended the Secretary of State after Mr Baxter said it had been “quite disgraceful” for her to immediately blame the police in the wake of the Downey judgement. The spokeswoman said that Theresa Villiers was merely “reflecting the judgement in the Downey case handed down by Justice Sweeney”.
And former PSNI Chief Constable has reportedly denied having had any part in passing on an instruction from Downing Street to Mr Baxter, asking him to release Gerry McGeough, who was subsequently convicted of attempted murder.
Mr Baxter said that Sir Hugh’s office had phoned him, but did not specifically implicate Sir Hugh.
Security journalist Brian Rowan yesterday said that he had spoken to Sir Hugh who categorically denied any knowledge of such a call “What he said to me was, that in his period here, there were occasions when politicians from both sides and all sides would have raised issues with him around arrests and other matters. He said to that: ‘I told them to get lost.’”