A judge-led review ordered after an IRA bomb suspect was wrongly given a government assurance he was not wanted by UK police has identified two other cases where similar errors were apparently made.
Lady Justice Hallett, who was asked by Prime Minister David Cameron to examine the administrative process for dealing with so-called ‘on-the-runs’, found systematic flaws in its operation but concluded it was not unlawful in principle.
The judge said the scheme agreed between the last Labour government and Sinn Fein was not well publicised, and effectively kept “below the radar”, but was not secret.
“The administrative scheme did not amount to an amnesty,” she said.
“Suspected terrorists were not handed a ‘get out of jail free card’.”
Under the scheme, which started running in 2000, almost 190 republicans who had left the UK jurisdiction received assurances they were not being sought by British authorities. A number who applied for assurances were not granted them because they were considered as wanted.
The probe by Lady Justice Hallett was ordered in the wake of the high profile collapse of a case against Co Donegal man John Downey, who was accused of murdering four soldiers in the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing in 1982.
The prosecution of Mr Downey, 62, was halted at the Old Bailey in February after Mr Justice Sweeney found he had been wrongly sent one of the Government’s letters of assurance in 2007 when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him.
The judge decided his arrest, when he travelled through Gatwick airport last year, and the subsequent prosecution had therefore represented an abuse of process. Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.
Police in Northern Ireland were heavily criticised over the error in the Downey case but the court proceedings also shone a light on the wider administrative scheme of sending assurance letters to on-the-runs.
In her review, Lady Justice Hallett outlined details of the two other cases where letters were sent in error:
:: The use of an incorrect date of birth to search a police database may have missed an offence potentially linked to an individual. An individual with the same name and same year of birth was wanted for a terrorist offence. It has not yet been established if this was the same individual who received the letter of assurance.
:: An individual who was wanted for an offence committed after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was sent a letter with a general assurance they were not wanted. The origin of the mistake lay in the fact the police believed they were only searching for pre-1998 offences and therefore did not outline details of the 2003 offence when informing the Northern Ireland Office that the individual was “not wanted by the PSNI”.
The scheme saw names of individuals passed to the Government, the majority through Sinn Fein. The names were then passed to police and prosecutors to assess their status.
A report on each individual was sent back to the Government and, if they were declared as not being wanted, a letter of assurance was then issued to the individuals.
The Government accepted the report’s conclusions and recommendations.
Key findings of the 273-page report included:
:: Lady Justice Hallett said there was no logical explanation for why police in Northern Ireland failed to flag up that Mr Downey was wanted by the Metropolitan Police in London.
:: She also criticised the fact that the PSNI missed at least two further opportunities to rectify the error.
:: She found that the Government did not widely publicise the scheme but that it was not secret. But she said the lack of openness caused particular distress to victims of terrorism.
:: There was insufficient legal consultation as to the consequences of sending the on-the-run letters.
:: There was pressure exerted by Sinn Fein on the Government to quickly resolve the OTR issue and subsequently by Government on officials, but that pressure “did not cross the line” into becoming improper.
:: The scheme lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards.
:: There was insufficient liaison with other police forces and senior prosecutors elsewhere in the UK.
:: A total of 13 convicted OTRs benefited from royal pardons.
The Downey case triggered a political crisis at Stormont earlier this year.
Many politicians, particularly unionists, reacted furiously, claiming they knew nothing about the letters.
DUP First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign over the matter - an ultimatum he withdrew when Mr Cameron ordered the review.
A police commander subsequently claimed that 95 of those who received letters were linked, though only by intelligence, to 295 murders during the Troubles.
Sinn Fein accused its political rivals of manufacturing the crisis and claimed information about the process was already in the public domain before the Downey case.
It also downplayed the significance of the letters, rejecting the claim that they amounted to amnesties and insisting they were merely a statement of fact about an individual’s status at a point in time.
In her conclusion, Lady Justice Hallett urged politicians not to use her report to make “political capital”.
“However the scheme is characterised, I have found nothing which, to the mind of this independent observer, should be allowed to undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland.
“One catastrophic mistake has been made and it cannot be undone. The families of those killed in the Hyde Park bombing have no choice but to come to terms with that fact, as devastating as I know it has been for them. Other mistakes have been made and need correcting.
“But this can be done in a measured and proportionate way. No one should use my findings to make political capital. Those whose lives have been devastated by terrorism deserve better. They have suffered enough.”