OTR report set to be published

The Rt Hon Lady Justice Hallett DBE Vice President of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London
The Rt Hon Lady Justice Hallett DBE Vice President of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London

A judge-led review of a controversial government scheme that saw around 200 Irish republicans receive assurances that they were not wanted by UK police will be published later.

Lady Justice Heather Hallett conducted the investigation into the so-called administrative process agreed between the last Labour government and Sinn Fein.

The probe, which will be outlined to parliament by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron in February in the wake of the high profile collapse of a case against a man accused of murdering four soldiers in the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing in 1982.

The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, was halted at the Old Bailey after Mr Justice Sweeney found he had been wrongly sent one of the Government’s letters of assurance in 2007 informing him the authorities were not pursuing him, when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him.

The judge decided his arrest, when he travelled through Gatwick airport last year, and the subsequent prosecution had therefore represented an abuse of process.

Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.

Police in Northern Ireland were heavily criticised over the error in the Downey case but the court proceedings also shone a light on the wider administrative scheme of sending assurance letters to fugitive republicans.

Many politicians at Stormont, particularly unionists, reacted furiously, claiming they knew nothing about the letters - alleging they amounted to “get out of jail free cards”.

Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign over the matter - an ultimatum he withdrew when Mr Cameron ordered the review.

A police commander has since claimed that 95 of those who received letters were linked, by intelligence, to 295 murders during the Troubles.

Sinn Fein has accused their political rivals of manufacturing a crisis and claimed information about the process was already in the public domain before the Downey case.

Republicans have also moved to downplay the significance of the letters, rejecting the claim they amounted to amnesties, insisting they were merely a statement of fact about an individual’s status at a point in time.

Ministers in both the current and previous governments also dismissed any suggestion the letters were amnesties, insisting the Downey case was an aberration.

To emphasise this, they pointed out that a number of individuals who applied for letters were not given them, as the authorities were still seeking them.

In regard to the 295 murder cases, they made clear that evidence based on intelligence was not sufficient to mount a prosecution.

While the vast majority of cases were processed under the Labour administration, 38 applications were considered by the coalition Government since coming to power in 2010, with 12 letters issued.

The Government has said the scheme stopped in 2012.

The broad terms of reference for Lady Justice Hallett’s review were to produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the administrative scheme; to determine whether any other letters sent through the scheme contained errors; and to make recommendations on those or “related matters” drawn to the attention of the inquiry.

The judge, who is also known for presiding over the inquests for the victims of the 7/7 terror attacks in London, was not required to examine each individual case in detail or consider the lawfulness of letters sent.

Her investigation was one of a series instigated into the scheme.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster is conducting its own inquiry while the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is re-examining each individual case to establish if any other letters were sent in error.