Applications from five on-the-run republican terror suspects for letters assuring them they will not be prosecuted in the UK are still being considered by the Government, a Stormont minister has claimed.
Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister David Ford indicated that the scheme to deal with on-the-runs (OTRs) was still active as Assembly members prepared to debate the controversy at an emergency meeting at Parliament Buildings in Belfast.
The disclosure by Mr Ford has created uncertainty over whether the administrative scheme, agreed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government, is still being run by the coalition Government.
More than 180 republicans have already received letters telling them they are not currently wanted by the police in the UK.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said today that her predecessor, Conservative MP Owen Paterson, had informed Sinn Fein that no new cases would be dealt with by the current Government, apart from the 38 it inherited on taking office, and had urged the republican party to bring new applications to the devolved authorities at Stormont.
But Mr Ford said his understanding from a discussion with a senior NIO official this morning was that there were five cases still being dealt with by the Government and that those only emerged in late 2012 - more than two years after the Coalition came to power.
Mr Ford said he was assured that the NIO had responsibility for the cases and not his devolved department.
“The senior (NIO) official I spoke to thought there were five cases still under examination and that they were their responsibility,” the Justice Minister said.
Ms Villiers said she was briefed on the scheme when she came to office in September 2012.
“It was explained to me that my predecessor looked at it when he was appointed,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“It was made very clear that it was not an amnesty, it did not confer immunity.”
Mrs Villiers said that, out of 38 cases pending when the Coalition came to office, 12 had received a letter.
“In hindsight, yes, it is a matter of great regret to me that, in particular, neither the First Minister (Peter Robinson) or the Justice Minister was briefed on this. Because, actually, what my predecessor, Owen Paterson, had decided to do was to recommend to Sinn Fein that, if new cases arose, it was not appropriate for the Government to deal with them, because policing and justice had by then been devolved.
“At that point we should have informed the devolved authorities, but we left it to Sinn Fein if they wished to raise new cases to pass them on to the devolved authorities.”
The Stormont Assembly was recalled for the additional sitting following a request by Mr Robinson at the height of this week’s political crisis over the scheme.
When Mr Robinson made the announcement on Wednesday, shortly after he had threatened to resign over the issue, there were fears the future of the power-sharing executive would be on the line during the plenary session.
But those concerns receded last night when the Democratic Unionist leader withdrew his ultimatum in response to an announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron that he was ordering a judge-led review of the matter.
Mr Robinson, whose resignation would have seen the institutions fold, and likely a snap Assembly election, claimed assurances he had received from the Government about the letters had now rendered them effectively “worthless”.
Sinn Fein has rejected this interpretation, claiming the letters still hold the same status and that they had never guaranteed immunity, rather they just informed an individual whether they were currently being sought by the UK authorities.
The republican party has also accused the DUP and other political rivals of “grandstanding” on the issue and claimed the threat of collapsing the Executive was a ruse to distract the public from the fact they all already knew about the process to deal with the on-the-runs.
Mr Robinson said the deluge of calls his party had received from victims and other members of the public demonstrated there was nothing “synthetic” about the crisis.
With Sinn Fein likely to be pitted against the majority of other MLAs in the Assembly, the plenary session at Stormont this afternoon will still undoubtedly be heated.
As well as commissioning the review, the Government said it would be making clear to all those who had received a letter in the past that if evidence now existed, or emerged in the future, which linked them to an offence, they could be questioned or prosecuted.
Mr Robinson claimed that move represented a fundamental change to how the scheme had operated before.
“I think that makes it clear that they (the OTRs) have a fairly worthless piece of paper,” he said.
Details of 180 plus letters sent to OTRs 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 the light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland reacting with fury, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.
The judge appointed by Mr Cameron will report by the end of May.
Last night Sinn Fein Assembly member Alex Maskey described the review announced by the Prime Minister as “unnecessary”.
“This announcement is a political fig leaf for the DUP to try and get them off the hook they jumped on to over the past few days,” he said.