Unionist leaders knew about controversial letters to on-the-run republicans clearing them to travel to the UK, Hyde Park bombing suspect John Downey has said.
In his first full-length interview since the Old Bailey case against him collapsed, Mr Downey said he was given his so-called “comfort letter” just days after the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up.
“As far as the Unionists saying that they didn’t know about the letters, of course they knew,” he said.
“I got the letter in 2007, having applied through Sinn Fein in 2003, four years later the application was granted as part of an ongoing process.”
Mr Downey, a member of Sinn Fein, was arrested at Gatwick Airport in May last year and charged with planting the explosive that ripped through Hyde Park in 1982, killing Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright, Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper and Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young.
But his trial for the IRA attack spectacularly collapsed last month sparking near chaos in Downing Street and Northern Ireland’s devolved government.
A judge ruled he could not stand trial as he had been given assurances - known as “comfort letters” - by the Police Service of Northern Ireland he was not wanted for questioning or prosecution in the United Kingdom despite the Met police holding a warrant for his arrest.
Breaking his silence for the first time since the furore, Mr Downey, 62, told his local newspaper the Donegal Democrat he does not know why he was arrested.
“As far as the letter is concerned this was an arrangement between the British and Irish Government and my arrest was a breach of the agreement reached between the British and Irish government,” he said.
Mr Downey, a father of three and former oyster farmer from Creeslough, Co Donegal, said he became an active member of the IRA after watching news reports as a teenager on the unfolding turmoil in Northern Ireland.
“I felt that I could not ignore the situation in the north and pretend that my fellow Irish men and women had nothing to do with me,” he said.
“I could see, at that time, that nothing was going to be accomplished by peaceful means and we had to fight fire with fire.”
He was jailed for IRA membership in 1974.
But he says he later became dedicated to the peace process and worked to persuade others to give up violence.
Since getting his “comfort letter”, he has travelled back and forth from several airports in the UK without ever being stopped by authorities, he said, adding that he still does not know why he was arrested or why it was allowed to happen.
Travelling to Canada in 2008, he claims the authorities there were assured by British authorities that they had no issue with him.
“I am told that the reason for my arrest was that I had come up on the police national computer (PNC),” he said.
“I had been in and out of Birmingham airport on numerous occasions.
“I’d also been in Stansted and then on that last day they decided to arrest me.
“I refuse to believe that if I was on the PNC that I would have gone through all those airports including Derry and Belfast, because that is within their jurisdiction, without being picked up,” he said.
The collapse of the case against Mr Downey - who denies any involvement in the Hyde Park bombing - unravelled details of a deal struck between the last Labour government and Sinn Fein to issue more than 180 individuals with letters making clear they could return to the UK as authorities were not seeking them.
Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry after unionists reacted with fury, with First Minister Peter Robinson threatening to resign, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.
Mr Downey later called off a welcome-home party in his native north Donegal over concerns that it was being turned into a media circus.
“At the end of the day, I am a Republican who wants to move forward in peace and harmony with the Unionist community,” he said.
“I recognise that in order to gain a united Ireland, Republicans have to persuade Unionists and that can only be done in an atmosphere of equality and trust.”
DUP MEP Diane Dodds denied unionist knowledge of the on-the-runs deal.
“It is absolutely clear that the only people who were aware of this grubby little deal, aside from those in Government who usurped the role of Parliament to institute it, were Sinn Fein and their confidantes,” she said.
She accused Mr Downey of ignoring the impact of the IRA on innocent victims.
“Republicans exist within their own bubble, isolated from the real world, and particularly isolated from the victims of terrorism created by the IRA of which Mr Downey was a member,” she said.
“So wrapped up were they in the underhand and secret deal hatched with a compliant Blair government that they have managed to convince themselves that everyone knew about it despite their self-confessed desire to keep it absolutely secret.”
Jim Allister, an MLA in the Stormont Assembly and leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, said the revelation that Mr Downey got his letter a few days after devolution “illustrates the rotten foundations on which Stormont was established”.
He added: “When the news of the judgment broke Peter Robinson told us that had he and (former DUP leader) Ian Paisley known this was going on they would not have entered government with Republicans.
“The question which obviously now arises is that now they are aware of it why do they remain in government with Sinn Fein?”