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Ford urges parties not to quit talks despite difficulties

Justice Minister David Ford

Justice Minister David Ford

The controversy over a Government scheme to deal with on-the-run Irish republicans should not be allowed to derail the peace process, justice minister David Ford said.

He urged members of Northern Ireland’s devolved power-sharing executive not to walk away from talks aimed at tackling the toxic legacy left by the conflict.

A probe was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron after a case against a man accused of the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing collapsed because he had received a letter under a Northern Ireland Office scheme saying he was not wanted by the UK authorities.

As part of a deal struck by the previous Labour government and Sinn Fein, similar letters were sent to around 190 republicans.

Mr Ford told Stormont’s Assembly: “Whatever the reverberations may be, whatever may emerge from however many inquiries there are, we will continue to bear responsibility in this place for dealing with issues like how we address the past and it is incumbent on all of us to work together to do that.”

Details about the assurance letters emerged two weeks ago when the case against John Downey from Co Donegal was dramatically halted at the Old Bailey.

The 62-year-old denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London’s Hyde Park in 1982.

The case against him was ended because government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.

The collapse shone light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly unionists, reacting with fury and claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.

The crisis brought the Stormont Executive to the verge of collapse, with Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson threatening to resign - an ultimatum he withdrew after Mr Cameron ordered the judge-led review.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers today announced that the Government had appointed a judge, Lady Justice Hallett, to take on the task.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has said his party’s involvement in five-party negotiations on the past started by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass was over, blaming Sinn Fein bad faith.

Mr Ford, leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, said: “We may be in a position where actually dealing with the past has become more difficult as a result of the Downey case but it has also been proven to be all the more necessary.

“That is why people saying they are walking away from talks, they are refusing to discuss the issues which we have responsibility for in this place, seems to me to be a profoundly unwise statement.”

The Northern Ireland Secretary last week insisted the OTR scheme was now over as far as the Government was concerned.

The process saw names of individuals passed to the authorities to check whether they were being pursued by police. If officers were not looking for them, they were sent a so-called assurance letter stating that fact.

The mistake in the Downey case resulted in him being sent a letter even though police in London wanted him for questioning.

Of around 190 republicans who received letters, 12 were issued since the coalition came to power in 2010.

 

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