One top Ulster lawyer has warned that the true meaning of the letters to on the run suspects has been radically misunderstood – and stressed that they categorically do not spell an amnesty.
John McBurney, who has represented figures including Rev Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, said there is a danger that unionism could hurtle into a spiral of “recrimination and finger-pointing”, all based on a false impression about the real nature of the letters.
Although a public enquiry has now been launched into the letters (something which is likely to be expensive and take months to complete), he said the answers to many burning questions about them are already to be found within the huge 53-page judgement which was made public this week after the John Downey case collapsed.
Mr McBurney, who was also a key legal figure at the Smithwick Tribunal into the murders of two top-brass RUC men, said that a careful reading of the extremely-detailed judgement makes plain that the letters do not offer “full and forever protection” to those who received them.
He said while they cannot be rescinded (in the sense that they cannot be simply ripped up and thrown in the bin), these “letters of comfort”, as they are known, would become obsolete if fresh evidence came to light connecting the suspects to charges.
If that were to happen, he said, the comfort in the letters would simply “ evaporate”.
Mr McBurney regards the following section of Justice Sweeney’s judgement as an absolutely key piece of the picture, and as a direct quote lifted from one of the early batch of letters sent to terror suspects in 2000.
The poorly-worded extract reads: “Following a review of your case by the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, he has concluded that on the evidence before him there is insufficient to afford a realistic prospect of convicting you for any offence arising out of... [insert atrocity here]
“You would not, therefore face prosecution for any such offence should you return to the United Kingdom.”
But it goes on to add: “That decision is based on the evidence currently available.
“Should fresh evidence arise – and any statement made by you implicating yourself in... [the atrocity in question] may amount to such evidence – the matter may have to be reconsidered.”
While former Hyde Park bomb suspect John Downey should not have received his letter, something which led to the collapse of the case against him, it does not mean no letter-holder will ever come before a court, he said, adding in short: “The letters do not amount to what some people think they are.”
Breen and Buchanan killers are likely to have had letter says McBurney
It is highly likely that some of the “letters of comfort” sent out to on the runs must have ended up in the hands of those responsible for murdering Bob Buchanan and Harry Breen.
That is the claim from John McBurney, who has represented the family of RUC chief superintendant Breen, shot dead by the IRA in 1989.
He died alongside superintendant Buchanan in an ambush, and the Smithwick tribunal late last year held there had been collusion between a member (or members) of An Garda Siochana in Dundalk, and the squad sent to murder the pair.
Asked whether it was a possibility some current letter-holders were behind the crime, he said: “Undoubtedly. Some of them must have been.
“Remember in relation to the Breen-Buchanan murders, the evidence at the tribunal was that there were up to 70 people involved.
“So if there were 70 paramilitaries involved, almost certainly some of them at least have received these letters.”
He added such people were referred to as “diggers; people watching along the roads and so forth.”
Then there were weapons couriers, those supplying vehicles, and more.
“If you’ve got 70 people, it’s not a large step in your mind to say some of them must have received letters,” he added.
He noted that for some of the roughly 180-plus suspects who received the now-infamous “letters of comfort”, the list of atrocities for which they were suspected could well run to more than a page long.
However, since uncertainty remains over who the recipients were, it is not really possible to determine.
At the time of their deaths, Breen and Buchanan had just returned from Dundalk, and had been discussing a possible joint RUC/Garda operation on lands owned by republican Thomas “Slab” Murphy.