Former Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde yesterday rejected dramatic claims by former detective Norman Baxter as “misleading” — but said that Downing Street may well have phoned police to pass on that Gerry Adams was unhappy at the arrest of republicans.
Giving evidence to Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is investigating the ‘comfort letters’ sent to IRA fugitives, Sir Hugh said he was “surprised” by some of the testimony last week from Mr Baxter.
Retired detective chief superintendent Baxter, who led the inquiry into the Omagh bomb, last week caused waves when he told MPs that Downing Street had phoned the chief constable’s office asking him to release former IRA man Gerry McGeough who has been arrested.
That request was passed on to Mr Baxter, he said, but he ignored it and McGeough was ultimately convicted of attempted murder.
First Minister Peter Robinson described Mr Baxter’s evidence as “convincing” and said it raised troubling questions about police actions.
But Sir Hugh, who at several points yesterday was sharply critical of Mr Baxter, said he wanted to be “utterly plain that never ever happened in my term in office”.
He added: “At no time did Number 10 try to influence my decision-making...at no time did any Secretary of State...try to influence me and at no time did any official from the NIO attempt to influence me.”
Sir Hugh said that had there been those attempts, he would have immediately made them public.
He said he was “very concerned” at the suggestion that there was pressure put on Mr Baxter and added: “It did not happen, in my judgment, and I would be very very surprised if that did happen.”
However, he said that it was possible there had been a call to inform Mr Baxter that Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had complained about the arrest.
And Sir Hugh strongly defended the NIO after Mr Baxter’s allegation that there appeared to be a culture in the department of ensuring that republicans were not prosecuted.
“I worked with the NIO extremely closely for seven years...I never had a concern about their integrity; I never found them to be biased and I never found them to be acting outside their areas of responsibility.”
Directly criticising Mr Baxter, who served under Sir Hugh during his time as Chief Constable, Sir Hugh said that the detective should not have checked on the police national computer to find whether or not John Downey was wanted but not pass the knowledge that he was wanted on to his superiors.
He dismissed Mr Baxter’s argument that to do so could be perverting the course of justice if it was seen as tipping Downey off that he was wanted by police.
Sir Hugh said: “Mr Baxter did not share that information with [the then Assistant Chief Constable Peter] Mr Sheridan. I think that’s the basic failure.”
He insisted that the police had “a very limited and restricted role” in relation to the ‘administrative scheme’.