Theresa Villiers will tonight apologise to terror victims re-traumatised by the row over ‘comfort letters’ for on the runs (OTRs).
Describing the fallout from the revelations as a challenge for both the Government and the Stormont Executive, the Secretary of State has prepared a speech saying she appreciated the “distress and concern” it had caused.
Addressing the Association of European Journalists in Belfast tonight, the Secretary of State is expected to begin by reiterating “just how much the Government appreciates the deep sense of anger felt” about what has taken place.
“For many people the judgment in the Downey case – accompanied as it was by details of the scheme put in place by the last Government to deal with on the runs – has been a cause of considerable distress and grave concern.
“I recognise that the people who must be feeling that distress and concern at its most intense levels are the families of those murdered in the appalling terrorist atrocity in Hyde Park over 30 years ago – who hoped that justice might at long last be done.
“But this issue affects victims of terrorism more widely, people like the relatives of the Kingsmills massacre who I met last week, people who have never seen the killers of their loved ones brought to justice.”
Ms Villiers believes that anyone who meets the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland cannot fail to be deeply moved by their pain and suffering.
“And I am very, very sorry that what’s happened in recent days will have revived painful memories for many victims, putting them through the agony of loss all over again.
“This controversy is a reminder to us all that in any process for dealing with the past, it is the interests of victims that must come first,” she adds.
The arrangements for dealing with OTRs were put in place by the previous Government back in 2000 and then accelerated after the failure to implement the Northern Ireland Offences Bill in 2006.
As Ms Villiers explains: “Essentially the process involved Sinn Fein submitting a list of individuals living outside the United Kingdom who believed that if they returned here to Northern Ireland – or any other part of the UK – that they might be wanted by the police in connection with terrorist offences committed before the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
“These names were then checked by the police and in some cases by the Public Prosecution Service.
“If that checking process concluded that the lack of evidence available at the time meant that there was no realistic prospect of prosecution the individuals concerned were informed that they were no longer wanted by police in a letter signed by a Northern Ireland Office official.
“Yet the recipients of these letters were also made aware that should sufficient evidence subsequently emerge connecting them with terrorist offences, then they would still be liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way.
“They are not ‘get out of jail free cards,” Ms Villiers goes on to say.