A secret quasi-amnesty deal between Tony Blair’s Government and 187 IRA members proposed by Sinn Fein could mean that many Troubles victims have no hope of ever getting justice, a dramatic court verdict has revealed.
The deal – which emerged as the case against alleged Hyde Park bomber John Downey collapsed at the Old Bailey – suggests that Parliament’s rejection of an amnesty for on the run terrorists was surreptitiously bypassed by Mr Blair’s Government.
According to evidence given to the court by Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, such letters – which were part of a project known as ‘the administrative scheme’ – were being sent out by a Government representative until two years ago.
Mr Kelly told the court: “It is impossible to overstate the importance of the assurances given to the 187 recipients, which included John Downey, being maintained. These were essential in the achievement of the series of agreements that began with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and were consolidated in… the commencement of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007.”
The court judgment was handed down on Friday but reporting restrictions were only lifted at 4.30pm yesterday when the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) told the High Court in London that it would not appeal the verdict.
The judgment states that in 2000 the RUC estimated that there were 200 on the runs. Allowing for those who have died over the intervening 14 years, the fact that 187 letters exist suggests that almost every IRA member on the run – and perhaps every one of them – has been given a letter similar to Downey’s.
First Minister Peter Robinson labelled yesterday’s court decision as an “outrage” and said it was “a sad day for victims of terrorism”, while Nigel Dodds said that the DUP knew nothing of the letters.
UUP MLA Tom Elliott said the revelation about secret letters was “a disgrace” and TUV leader Jim Allister said it revealed “the rotten skulduggery behind the peace process”.
Downey, who has a conviction for IRA membership but denied responsibility for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, first became a suspect just three weeks after the bomb when his fingerprints were, according to the prosecution, found on two parking tickets used to park the stolen car used in the bombing.
The judgment states that he was also a suspect in a 1972 bombing in Enniskillen which killed two UDR members.
The judgment also shows that Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, provided a witness statement for Mr Downey’s defence team and reveals that on May 19, 2000, Sinn Fein presented its first list of 36 IRA names to Mr Powell. He passed the list to the Attorney General, who in turn sent it to Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), asking him to try to locate the files of the individuals, trace witnesses and consult police.
However, the following month the then Attorney General, Lord Williams, wrote to the then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson to say: “I am seriously concerned that the exercise that is being undertaken has the capacity of severely undermining confidence in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland at this most sensitive of times.”
It was then accepted that if the evidential test was met in relation to a particular individual they would be prosecuted.
The judgment also reveals: “In a letter dated January 23, 2001 the Attorney General expressed concern about the making of any statement that implied that Government, rather than Parliament, would seek to influence or even prevent the prosecution of individuals – pointing out that not only would that be constitutionally wrong, but that it would not be possible either – given that neither he nor the DPP(NI) could be influenced by any such statement of Government intent.”
In 2005, the Government attempted to introduce a de facto amnesty for on the runs but that bill was withdrawn in Parliament by the then Secretary of State Peter Hain after it was opposed by every Northern Ireland party – including Sinn Fein, because it included soldiers within its ambit.
The judgment says “it appears...that it was the introduction of, and/or the failure of, the legislation which prompted the restart of the administrative scheme”.
Then, in February 2007 – just three months before Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley entered power-sharing together – the PSNI set up Operation Rapid to review the files of on the runs. That decision came two months after a confidential letter from the Prime Minister to Gerry Adams, assuring him that he wanted the issue resolved before he left office.
The process led to what the judge described as “direct engagement between Sinn Fein and the PSNI in order to try to expedite the remaining cases”.
Kevin McGinty, who advised the Attorney General on Northern Ireland, said that there had been “reluctance” by prosecutors to get involved in the scheme, partly because “the administrative scheme would only benefit one side of a divided community”.
He said that although the letters meant that prosecutions were very unlikely, they “could never amount to an amnesty of absolute and final promise not to prosecute”.
The PPS argued that the letters did not constitute an unequivocal assurance that the defendant would not, or would never be, prosecuted on the mainland for any terrorist offences committed before the Good Friday Agreement and were never intended to constitute an amnesty. But Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that the assurance meant that Downey could not be prosecuted.
Nigel Dodds last night said that the DUP “knew nothing” about the letters, either when they began or when the DUP entered power-sharing with Sinn Fein in 2007.
But Mr Hain defended the letters as a “critical piece of the peace deal”.
Mr Hain said he was surprised at Mr Robinson’s statement because it was Mr Blair’s actions which had cleared the way for him to be First Minister alongside Martin McGuinness and claimed that it was a view which “in a less charged moment he [Mr Robinson] would probably reconsider”.