The Government has been challenged to immediately stop consideration of five active cases involving on-the-run IRA terror suspects who have asked for assurances they are not wanted by police.
A Stormont minister issued the demand during a fiery emergency meeting of the Assembly, called to debate the controversy over a deal the last Labour government struck with Sinn Fein that saw 187 individuals issued with letters making clear they could return to the UK because police were not seeking them.
While the majority of the cases were dealt with under the last government, almost 40 outstanding applications were taken on by the coalition Government when it assumed power in 2010.
On Friday it emerged that five cases apparently remain outstanding, with the NIO understood to be still deliberating on whether those applicants should receive a letter.
There were angry scenes outside the chamber when victims of IRA terror, including the 1987 Remembrance Day bomb in Enniskillen, attempted to confront Sinn Fein MLAs in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings.
DUP Economy Minister Arlene Foster directed a pointed message to Sinn Fein: “They have always had a cavalier attitude to the rule of law but they need not underestimate our continuing determination to rebuild confidence and that must start, I have to say Mr Speaker, with the five cases we have learnt of this morning.”
She then delivered an ultimatum to the NIO regarding the cases: “They must immediately go, they have to be stopped immediately - I think that will be a mark of how this issue goes forward and we will be asking that question of the Secretary of State very, very quickly. I make it very clear from this House that we are not just dealing with the past, as we have learnt this morning, we are also dealing with the here and now in relation to this system.”
Asked about the five cases, the NIO said it would not comment in detail on the scheme due to the judge-led review of the system, which was announced by Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday.
The five cases were brought to light by Justice Minister David Ford who said he had been informed of their existence by a “senior NIO official” yesterday morning.
Details of letter scheme emerged 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. But the collapse shone light on the wider policy of sending such the letters.
There is some confusion as to when the five cases came to the attention of the NIO. Mr Ford said it was his understanding from his discussion with the NIO official that they came to light in “late 2012”, but that runs contrary to the NIO’s position that the only cases it has dealt with were lodged prior to the 2010 election.
The DUP claims Government assurances about the status of the letters issued has rendered them effectively “worthless”. But Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness insisted “nothing could be further from the truth”. The Sinn Fein veteran insisted rival politicians at have been aware of the scheme for a long time.
The Assembly was recalled at the request of the DUP. During the debate, in which a DUP motion condemning the scheme passed with only Sinn Fein opposition, Mr Robinson accused ex prime minister Tony Blair of a “deliberate deception by omission” by failing to tell most Ulster politicians about his government’s agreement with republicans. The DUP leader said Ian Paisley had written to Mr Blair when he was in power seeking assurances that no concessions had been given to Sinn Fein on OTRs but the reply omitted mention of the scheme.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt branded the scheme “perverse” and said: “You expected a loved one to phone the police and say ‘do you have any evidence about who committed the murder?’. You do not expect the murderer to be able to phone the police and say ‘do you have any leads that would end up with me going to prison?’.”
Mr Nesbitt said Sinn Fein’s actions over OTR had doomed the Haass process on the past.
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said people had the right to know if other secret deals had been struck. Mr Ford said many questions remained to be answered about the “misguided” scheme.