The NIO and the PSNI may have been acting unlawfully in sending ‘comfort letters’ to IRA fugitives, the First Minister has suggested.
Speaking in the Assembly yesterday, Peter Robinson again made clear his unhappiness at how the letters – which in at least one case have stopped an IRA man being prosecuted for murder – were concocted between the police and the Government.
The issue was raised on several occasions during First Minister’s Questions in the Assembly yesterday and an urgent oral question to the Justice Minister later saw the issue again brought to the floor of the Assembly.
Mr Robinson was particularly critical of how the ‘administrative scheme’ under which the letters were issued had continued after the devolution of policing and justice, without the Executive or the Justice Minister being told.
He said: “I do not claim to be a lawyer, but even with the fact that I have been a law-maker for probably the best part of 35 years, when I look at the negotiations that were held on policing and justice it seems clear to me that matters relating to the PSNI, to prosecutions and to other matters suggest that responsibility for this issue should have been transferred [to Stormont] in 2010.
“If that is the case, there is no legal authority for the PSNI to respond in the way that it did and certainly no authority for the NIO to issue letters.
“I think that that is a matter that the inquiry judge will want to look at, and it may well be that the Attorney General will want to look at it.
“We will certainly take the matter up with the PSNI, and arrangements have been made to have meetings with the PSNI and the Secretary of State on these issues.”
He added: “The authority to take up an issue does not lie somewhere out there to float around between the NIO and the devolved administration as to who wants to take it out; authority is laid down in law on whose responsibility it is.”
Later, the DUP chairman of the Justice Committee tabled an urgent question to Justice Minister David Ford.
Referring to the revelations of recent days, Paul Givan asked the Alliance leader “whether the criminal justice agencies, including the police service and the Public Prosecution Service, have been complicit in aiding and abetting the Northern Ireland Office’s unlawful actions by taking the scheme forward”.
Mr Ford said that Mr Givan was being “a little premature” in his suggestion but added: “I am obtaining legal advice on the continued operation of the scheme by the Northern Ireland Office after the date of the devolution of justice powers to this Assembly.”
And, dismissing former Secretary of State Peter Hain’s call for an amnesty for the Bloody Sunday soldiers, the Justice Minister also said: “As far as I am concerned, the agencies of the justice system have a responsibility and duty to investigate crimes and, where possible, bring a satisfactory prosecution.
“In many cases, 30 or 40 years on, it will not be possible to do that, but the key issue is that there should be no question of the agencies failing to carry out the duty that they are obliged to by the law of this region, the law of the United Kingdom and international conventions.”
Mr Robinson also accused Mr Hain of giving “inaccurate” information to the House of Commons – something Mr Hain has denied – when he told North Down MP Lady Hermon that there were no Government proposals to deal with the on the runs, despite the fact the administrative scheme had already at that point been set up by Mr Hain’s department.
UKIP MLA David McNarry said that if the truth had been kept from Mr Ford, “then the question has to be asked – what was the legal basis for the non-pursuit of the on the runs?
“If justice had been devolved, then were these letters which were issued, issued without proper legal authority? If that is the case then the person who issued them – presumably the Secretary of State of the day – was acting outside the law.
“At the very least, that has to be a resignation matter and it looks very like perversion of the course of justice.”
Green Party leader Steven Agnew said of the episode: “The lack of transparency has caused a further breakdown of trust in what was already a very fragile political situation.”