IRA On the Runs letters scheme axed, says Villiers

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers is welcomed to Deans restaurant in Belfast city centre by Martin Allioth (right), chairman of the Association of European Journalists.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers is welcomed to Deans restaurant in Belfast city centre by Martin Allioth (right), chairman of the Association of European Journalists.

Theresa Villiers has said that five outstanding applications from on the run IRA suspects, seeking assurance they are not wanted by police, will not be processed by the Government – but the TUV has said it isn’t enough while Sinn Fein accused her of reneging on a deal.

While the secretary of state has already insisted the controversial scheme set up to deal with republicans wanting to enter the UK is at an end, there had been confusion about the status of the five cases that were still effectively in the system.

The deal struck by the previous Labour government and Sinn Fein saw names of individuals passed to the authorities to check whether they were being pursued by police.

If officers were not looking for them, they were sent a so-called assurance letter stating that fact. Around 190 republicans received letters – 12 since the coalition came to power in 2010.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “It’s simply not good enough to say that no more of these letters will be issued. There should never have been any of these letters issued in the first place and those in circulation should, as the First Minister claimed was a resigning issue, be rescinded.”

Ms Villiers yesterday said that when the Northern Ireland Office ceased its involvement in the administrative process in 2012, no conclusion had been reached on five applications and they remained under review. Last week the Democratic Unionists demanded that any consideration of those cases was halted immediately.

During a visit in Belfast, Ms Villiers insisted no letters would be sent to those five individuals.

“The NIO has no plans to take further action on those cases. My understanding is the (Stormont) Department of Justice wants nothing to do with the scheme, so as far as the Government is concerned this scheme is at an end,” she said.

Ms Villiers added: “We are not going to be writing any further letters.”

Sinn Fein accused the Conservative MP of showing “bad faith” in reneging on the agreement on on the runs (OTRs).

Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein MP for Newry and Armagh, said: “What her comments smack of is her complete lack of understanding of the peace process and the political viewpoints of republicans and nationalists, something which has been typical of her tenure in the north.”

Details about the letters emerged last week when the case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed.

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.

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 UK Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry into the scheme.

Yesterday Mr Robinson said the PSNI had to clarify whether they were still investigating cases potentially linked to individuals who had been sent letters.

“I think the one area, and it wasn’t for the secretary of state to pick it up, that is still left to be dealt with is whether there are ongoing investigations into the cases where letters have been issued,” he said.

The First Minister told the BBC: “That’s a vital area because effectively without those ongoing investigations into those cases then largely it is immunity, the cases are closed, so I think we want that clarification from the PSNI.”

UUP Assembly member Danny Kinahan has claimed he is aware of another case of a letter being sent in error.

Ms Villiers said she was not aware of another case but added the inquiry would seek to establish if Mr Kinahan’s allegation was correct.

She said the review would also consider what was done with the five outstanding applications – and reiterated her view that the letters never amounted to a “get out of jail free card” but were a statement of fact about an individual’s status.