OTR scheme flawed says top prosecutor

Barra McGrory QC, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for Northern Ireland
Barra McGrory QC, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for Northern Ireland

A Government scheme for dealing with on-the-run republicans is flawed, Northern Ireland’s chief prosecutor said.

They were told they were not wanted by police for troubles crimes despite there being potential evidence available, Barra McGrory QC added.

He briefed MPs investigating the Government’s administration scheme for telling people living outside the UK that they were not sought for conflict crimes as part of the peace process. The letters of assurance said prosecutions could be taken if new information emerged.

Mr McGrory said: “If there is a flaw in the scheme, if the scheme had not been constructed in that way, it probably would not have worked politically.

“It is not for me to make a judgment on whether or not it was flawed, it is for society and history to make a judgment on that.

“From a prosecutorial point of view, speaking as a prosecutor, the scheme is flawed in the sense that it submitted names to the prosecution service in respect of whom there was potentially evidence on the basis that the police had no interest in those individuals when in fact in other circumstances they would have.”

The process for dealing with those fleeing justice sparked controversy; opponents branded it a grubby deal to win Sinn Fein backing, while supporters insisted it did not constitute an amnesty for murder but was a necessary compromise to support the peace process.

An agreement between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government saw around 200 letters sent to republican OTRs, informing them that UK police were not actively seeking them - but not ruling out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

The scheme was established following the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, administered by the NIO with the involvement of Tony Blair’s Downing Street and senior law figures.

It dealt with cases of republicans suspected of IRA terrorism who were never charged or convicted of related offences.

The special arrangements disclosed followed the collapse of the Hyde Park bomb trial, which was stopped when it emerged the man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA bombing had received one of the letters.

John Downey, from County Donegal in the Irish Republic, denied the charges.

Mr McGrory told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, sitting at Stormont, that the letters were not an impediment to prosecution.

“I would argue as a prosecutor that they are of no value to them.”

He said the letters made clear they were only good on the date they were received.

“It is my professional opinion, as the chief prosecutor of the jurisdiction, that these letters are of little benefit.

“Anyone who is in receipt of these letters ought not to be sleeping easy in their beds.”

He agreed with MP Ian Paisley that it would be better to “clear the decks” of the letters and said police were reviewing the cases of those who had received them.

The DPP said if evidence was uncovered by police they should “consider that as potential prosecution and if it meets the evidential test then the individual will be prosecuted”.

Mr McGrory said his predecessor had expressed grave reservations in 1999 about plans for a scheme for dealing with on-the-runs.

Sir Alasdair Fraser QC believed it would be preferable to deal with the matter openly through Parliament rather than involving the prosecution service and risk damaging its independence and reputation, according to his successor.

Mr McGrory said Sir Alasdair was contacted in November 1999 by the English Attorney General following high-level political discussions as part of the wider peace process.

He added: “Sir Alasdair made it very clear in November 1999 that he had grave reservations as the chief prosecutor for the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland about any scheme that would give a blanket undertaking or be seen to compromise the administration of justice in this jurisdiction.”

He said that “materially influenced” the Attorney General’s approach.

The former director told the Attorney General that he viewed the proposal as being fraught with difficulty.

Mr McGrory said: “He informed him that it could be damaging to perceptions of the independence of the prosecution authorities.”

Sir Alasdair died in June 2012, aged 65.

The witness had some involvement in the administrative scheme, as a lawyer representing Sinn Fein, before his appointment as DPP.

But Mr McGrory insisted he was right not to disclose that on his application form for the DPP job.

He also dismissed a suggestion by Ian Paisley MP that he was poacher turned gamekeeper and said he was never involved in the strategy of the Government’s administrative scheme.