Lawyer: Why did OTRs sought drop from 75 to 16 in a year?

Solicitor John McBurney
Solicitor John McBurney

A lawyer who has represented many victims of terrorism has raised concerns about revelations that the number of IRA fugitives being sought by police collapsed from 75 to 16 in the space of a year.

John McBurney said he was particularly perturbed by the apparent use of the “public interest” as an argument for prosecutors to drop certain long-standing cases where on the runs had been sought.

The solicitor, who has among his clients First Minister Peter Robinson, raised the issue after Tuesday night’s BBC Spotlight programme revealed that in 2007, at the start of the PSNI’s Operation Rapid, 75 individuals were confirmed by the Attorney General as being wanted. Two years later, that number had shrunk to 16

Spotlight said that some cases appeared to have been reviewed again and again until a decision was taken not to prosecute.

The programme said that one fugitive was described as wanted three times over the course of a decade only to be removed from the wanted list in 2012.

Mr McBurney told the News Letter that the authorities appeared to have asked the question: “How do we reverse the wanted to unwanted in a short space of time and is the way to do that the parachuting in of the ‘public interest’ factor?

“If so, what basis was it being introduced in each case and what influences were being brought to bear on that?”

The Downey judgment reveals the unease of the then Attorney General, Lord Williams, at a suggestion by officials in 2000 that on the run cases “could be considered again by the Attorney General/DPP(NI) in the light of evidential sufficiency and, if necessary, on public interest grounds”.

He replied that, given his decisions could be judicially reviewed, “I must not act for reasons of political convenience – however desirable any immediate effect may be”.

Mr McBurney said: “It seems to be becoming clearer and clearer that amongst the names advanced by Sinn Fein there are several categories.

“There are those who ultimately did not receive the so-called comfort or reassurance letters and may indeed have received an uncomfortable letter saying that were they to be in this jurisdiction they would be sought for arrest and questioning.

“There seem to be some others who were not even known to the authorities and then there is what seems to be the largest category by far of those who were of interest to the authorities in their investigations with regard to serious matters and who ultimately received the letters after a review carried out through the police service and law officers in the form of the DPP and the then Attorney General.”

He said that the reviews seemed in some cases to end with individuals who had previously been sought for questioning and likely arrest no longer being sought by the police. A key question that then arises is whether that reversal of position came about by consideration of a public interest factor in the decision-making process.

“It is of course appropriate in many situations for a public interest dimension to be factored into a determination by the DPP. But in this particular set of circumstances it becomes very important to know how many of the decisions which ultimately resulted in the issuing of these letters had a public policy consideration factored into the determining of a particular case.”