A former acting Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI has raised serious concerns about a revelation in the Downey judgement which has escaped scrutiny.
Alan McQuillan, who left the police in 2003 to head up an agency targeting criminals’ assets, told the News Letter that his understanding is that senior police officers were not aware of the NIO’s involvement in the process in which they were asked to participate.
Last week’s High Court judgment revealed part of a note from the first meeting of the PSNI’s ‘Operation Rapid’ – the unit which investigated on the runs and checked if they were wanted – in February 2007.
A note of that meeting recorded that the head of the PSNI’s C2 branch, which was responsible for the scheme, told officers present that solicitor Barra McGrory, who is now Northern Ireland’s top prosecutor, had written to the police on behalf of on the runs.
The officer said that under European and UK human rights law the police were “obliged” to review the cases and “establish the legitimate basis why a person on the run was wanted”.
Crucially, the terms of reference outlined stated that if it was established that an individual was not sought by police, this would “be passed to ACC Crime for onward transmission to their solicitor”.
Yet the judgment makes clear in numerous places that the letters did not go back to Mr McGrory, as apparently envisaged by the officers who did the investigation.
Instead, the letters went to the NIO, who then sent a letter – which may not have been the same as that received from the PSNI – to Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, former Secretary of State Peter Hain made no mention of a solicitor or the need to abide by European law. Rather, he said that the process for creating the letters began with Mr Kelly who “put forward the names of those who believed they might be unable to return to UK jurisdiction without fear of arrest. A PSNI unit then conducted a painstaking check on each one to see if there was any evidence to take forward an arrest and prosecution.”
He said that no minister ever knew who got letters.
Mr McQuillan, a former Assistant Chief Constable of the RUC who left the force four years before Operation Rapid, said that it was not clear whether the PSNI letters had been sent to Mr Kelly by the NIO or if the NIO had created its own letters, unknown to the police.
“What we seem to have here is complete confusion. It will be a matter for the inquiry but it seems to me that there were two systems in place at one time,” he said.
Mr McQuillan said that the first scheme appeared to involve a solicitor writing to the PSNI asking for clarification as to whether his client was wanted for questioning, something which was “perfectly legitimate and proper”.
However, Mr McQuillan said that there now appeared to have been a second process outside of the PSNI whereby the NIO was heavily involved.
“One would normally have expected the Chief Constable to go back to the solicitor for the parties concerned and respond to them on the issues.”
He added: “Everything I’ve heard about what the police thought at every level was that they believed this was a process to deliver the letters to the individual concerned [via the solicitor].
“At some point, that seems to have been transferred to a political process through the NIO and they had a political agenda...police were asked to do a job for a specific purpose and the NIO had a secret agenda behind the scenes.”
He added: “We’ll see what the judge says in due course but if you set up these secret schemes and give another organisation a job to do, not knowing what that is feeding, you’re asking for trouble from the outset.”
He added: “We have to find some way to close off the past for our children but you won’t do that by secret deals behind closed doors, you won’t do it by misleading people for the best part of seven years by setting up the Historical Enquiries Team to tell people that they are investigating people with a view to bringing them before the courts only to discover that many people have been given get-out-of-jail cards and Royal Prerogatives of Mercy.
“That is the most shameful aspect of this.”