Sinn Fein has said it will not give evidence before a Westminster committee which is investigating ‘comfort letters’ for on-the-run republicans.
Three wanted republican fugitives were told by the Government that they were “cleared” at the start of March, Sinn Fein has said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said no so-called letters of assurance, which informed people that they are not sought by detectives probing Troubles-related crimes, have been sent since 2012.
She has added that the Government administrative scheme which provided the messages to OTRs (on the runs) is over and five outstanding applications will not be processed.
Earlier, Sinn Fein had said that it would not attend appear before the Northern Ireland select committee in London to give evidence.
Today, a Sinn Fein statement said: “Three individuals, who Sinn Fein had previously been told by the NIO (Northern Ireland Office) remained ‘wanted’ by the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), were confirmed as ‘cleared’ by the NIO on March 3rd 2014.”
The process for dealing with those fleeing justice sparked controversy; opponents branded it a grubby deal to win Sinn Fein backing, while supporters insisted it did not constitute an amnesty for murder but was a necessary compromise to support the peace process.
Ann Travers’ sister Mary Travers, 22, was shot dead by an IRA gang as she left Mass in Belfast with her father, the magistrate Tom Travers, in 1984.
She said: “The OTR letters seem to be like the final nail in the coffin of victims.
“Nobody is getting any justice or any prosecutions for their loved ones’ murders and those responsible for putting us in the situation that we are in today seem to be continually rewarded”.
An agreement between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government saw around 200 letters sent to republican OTRs, informing them that UK police were not actively seeking them – but not ruling out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.
The scheme was established following the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, administered by the NIO with the involvement of Tony Blair’s Downing Street and senior law figures.
It dealt with cases of republicans suspected of IRA terrorism who were never charged or convicted of related offences.
The special arrangements disclosed followed the collapse of the Hyde Park bomb trial, which was stopped when it emerged the man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA bombing had received one of the letters.
John Downey, from County Donegal in the Irish Republic, denied the charges.
Sinn Fein has faced criticism after it said it will not send Gerry Kelly, a senior party member who was involved in the administrative scheme, to give evidence to a committee of MPs probing the letters scheme.
The party submitted written evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee which said:
:: During the period from January 2000 to December 2012 a total of 214 individuals requested Sinn Fein’s assistance in seeking clarity around their legal status if they returned to the six counties.
:: Most cases were processed through the ‘administrative route’.
:: Between April 2007 and July 2013 a total of 35 cases were addressed through the ‘legal route’.
:: Three individuals were arrested and charged while awaiting clarity. Two were subsequently acquitted of all charges; the other was sentenced to 20 years in 2011 and released in 2013.
The party said the issue or use of amnesty played no part.
Meanwhile, a senior civil servant told the committee the sending of the letters was not illegal or immoral.
Permanent secretary of Northern Ireland’s justice department Nick Perry testified that the process was scrutinised by senior law officers.
He said: “There may be all sorts of issues about it being distasteful. It was not illegal and to that extent I don’t believe it was immoral.”
Committee chairman Laurence Robertson said 95 of those who received letters were connected through intelligence to almost 300 murders.
Democratic Unionist Upper Bann MP David Simpson said: “It shows us the depth that the government of then were prepared to go in order to get Sinn Fein on board.
“It is a can of worms and it is really corrupt.”
Mr Perry is a former senior government official at the NIO.
He said the letters started towards the tail end of his time there, before he was transferred to Stormont’s justice department on devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Northern Ireland in 2010.
He said an issue like the on the runs or the early release of prisoners had to be judged alongside the goal of achieving a lasting political peace settlement and saving people’s lives, adding that the scheme was a “factual” expression of the situation at the time.
Earlier, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said that, although the party had nothing to hide, officials would decline invitations to attend the select committee which is investigating revelations earlier this year that three British governments since 2001 provided 228 IRA on-the-runs (OTRs) with letters stating they were no longer wanted for past crimes.
The other four parties in the Stormont government accuse Westminster and Sinn Fein of keeping the deal secret.
A separate inquiry by Lady Justice Heather Hallett was ordered by David Cameron 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 wanted by detectives in London, had denied the murder of the four soldiers.
Mr McGuinness said: “Sinn Fein has clearly outlined our position on the issue of on-the-runs and despite claims to the contrary, neither this process, nor the agreements on which it was based, were secret or hidden.
“However, in the interests of transparency and in an attempt to minimise the damage to the peace process from a growing public controversy, Sinn Fein agreed to participate fully and willingly in the Hallett Review.
“To that end our party president Gerry Adams, (Sinn Fein national executive member) Gerry Kelly and myself met with the Hallett Review team earlier this week and put Sinn Fein’s position on this and other legacy issues on the record.” We see no point therefore in Gerry Kelly attending the Westminster committee.”