Justice Minister David Ford has said that he does not know why more than 12 years ago the Prison Service put forward names of IRA members who appear to have received “comfort letters” from the NIO.
Last week’s John Downey High Court judgment revealed that by 2002, Sinn Fein had passed the names of 162 on the runs to the Government — with the Prison Service adding another 10 and the Irish government adding a further two.
Many who have read the judgment are baffled as to why the Prison Service would have had any role in a scheme set up to reassure IRA fugitives that they could return to Northern Ireland without fear of arrest.
At the time, the Prison Service was the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), something which transferred to Stormont’s Department of Justice in 2010 with the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly.
Yesterday, Mr Ford told the News Letter that he did not know why the Prison Service had put the names forward but that he was working to establish, if that is possible, what had gone on.
“I have asked for any information currently held by the Northern Ireland Prison Service as an agency of the Department of Justice,” he said.
Mr Ford added that he had questions which he would want to be raised as part of the judge-led inquiry.
The Downey judgment mentions an NIO briefing about on the runs and it is that 2002 briefing which reveals the Prison Service involvement.
Robin Masefield, the former director general of the Prison Service, had not been in post at the time. He took on the role in 2004, and told the News Letter that during his six-year tenure the issue did not arise.