Ronnie Flanagan: on the run letters were not amnesties

PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 7/11/2001:  Sir Ronnie Flanagan, ex-Chief Constable, pictured here while still in post
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 7/11/2001: Sir Ronnie Flanagan, ex-Chief Constable, pictured here while still in post

A former chief constable who led police in Northern Ireland when the Government first started issuing controversial letters of assurance to fugitive republicans has insisted they were not amnesties.

Sir Ronnie Flanagan was giving evidence on Tuesday to a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into the contentious on the run (OTR) administrative process, agreed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour Government, which ultimately saw letters sent to around 190 republicans informing them they were not being sought by the authorities in the UK.

The region’s former top officer said he was confident the process did not allow people to evade justice and merely provided notification from police that, at that specific point in time, there was not sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution. He insisted that if new evidence came to light the letters would not have been a “barrier” to pursuing the individuals who had received them.

Asked whether people in other circumstances could ring up the police and ask if they were wanted, Sir Ronnie claimed the political context at the time, which had also seen the early release of paramilitary prisoners, meant that a “completely normal situation” did not apply.

But he added: “I certainly would never have been engaged in a process that would have allowed anyone to escape justice or evade justice.”

Sir Ronnie was also adamant no political pressure was exerted on him to ensure certain individuals were not pursued.

“I wouldn’t have tolerated it for a second,” he said.

Details of the OTR scheme, which started running in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, emerged 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, over the Hyde Park outrage was halted in February after a judge found he had been wrongly sent one of the so-called letters of comfort, when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him. Downey denied involvement in the attack.

Downey was processed through the scheme years after Sir Ronnie left his job as chief constable in 2002.

Instead his evidence centred on the formative years of the OTR scheme.

Sir Ronnie said while he understood the scheme became more formalised after his departure from the PSNI, during his tenure it involved police answering questions from the Director of Public Prosecutions on certain named individuals.

“If we were given the name of an individual and considered all of the intelligence, if there was any that we held about that individual, (and) whether there was any evidence – fingerprint, DNA, witness, physical evidence or anything else. If after an examination of all of that we had no grounds for arresting a person whatever – in other words it would have almost in such circumstances have been unlawful to have arrested a person – if we arrived at that conclusion I personally would have had no objection to such a person being told that at that particular point in time there would be no basis on which they would be (arrested), I would have no difficulty with that.”