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Hallett report: Judge clears government of acting illegally over ‘comfort letters’

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers speaks in the House of Commons, London, as the Hallett review was released. PA/PA Wire

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers speaks in the House of Commons, London, as the Hallett review was released. PA/PA Wire

The judge-led review of ‘letters of comfort’ to IRA on the runs has concluded that the scheme was not unlawful and was not deliberately kept from the public.

Lady Justice Hallett’s review was revealed by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers in the House of Commons just after midday.

Ms Villiers said that the judge was clear that the scheme “did not amount to an amnesty for terrorists” but that she had raised concerns about the lack of proper lines of accountability for those operating the scheme.

The judge found that 13 convicted on the run terrorists — though not any who had yet to be convicted — were given the Royal Prerogative of Mercy between 2000 and 2002.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers told the Commons: “I would emphasise that Lady Justice Hallett has found no evidence that either politicians or officials ever interfered improperly with due process of law or the operational independence of police or prosecutors.

“The report concludes that the scheme did not impact on police investigations into historic terrorist offences.

“PSNI and HET files on terrorist crimes were not closed. There was no chilling effect.”

Labour Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis claimed that the Hallett report “shatters a number of myths”, as it had made clear that the letters of comfort were “not unlawful”.

And former Labour Secretary of State Peter Hain — who was heavily involved in the scheme — said that Lady Justice Hallett had produced an “exemplary report” which made clear that “no minister misled anybody”.

Responding to him, Ms Villiers said: “It would have been far better if I and my predecessors had been more transparent” and she later conceded that the report contains “some very serious criticisms of how the scheme was operated”.

But Tory MP Andrew Robathan — who until recent days was an NIO junior minister — said that he had found it “extraordinary” that Mr Justice Sweeney had cleared IRA man John Downey as a result of a mistake in his ‘comfort letter’.

However, he said that despite what Lady Justice Hallett said in her report about the scheme not being secret, “it was nevertheless deliberately obscured from public view and kept out of public domain by the last government”.

Ms Villiers said that the government accepted the findings in full and repeated the government’s apology, saying it was “profoundly sorry” for the hurt caused by what had been revealed.

Ms Villiers said: “The government fully appreciates the deep sense of hurt and anger that the collapse of the Downey trial has caused both to them and victims of terrorism more widely. And I would like to repeat the apology I gave in March for that. This government is profoundly sorry for the hurt this case has caused.”

Ulster-born Labour MP Kate Hoey said that she was concerned at the secrecy around the Hallett report itself, given that the review took place in private.

Lady Justice Hallett’s review was set up after First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign if there was not a public inquiry into the ‘comfort letters’ revelations.

She was asked by the Prime Minister to investigate how, after a deal between Tony Blair’s government and Sinn Fein, more than 200 people were told they were not wanted for terrorist crimes.

* More to follow

 

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