Peter Robinson last night recalled the Assembly for an emergency sitting after dramatically threatening to resign as First Minister.
As the Assembly faced its greatest crisis since the DUP entered power-sharing with Sinn Fein in 2007, Mr Robinson vowed to resign unless the 187 secret ‘letters of comfort’ to IRA members on the run are rescinded and an inquiry chaired by a judge investigates the affair.
That threat was confirmed again last night by Arlene Foster who explicitly said that Mr Robinson would resign if those conditions are not met.
Mr Robinson, who last night met the Secretary of State at Hillsborough Castle, has effectively given the Government 24 hours to consider his ultimatum, leaving open the possibility of Northern Ireland being without a First Minister by the weekend.
As recriminations from Tuesday’s Old Bailey verdict about the case against the alleged Hyde Park bomber John Downey continued, Justice Minister David Ford accused the Secretary of State of “misleading” Parliament over the scheme and said Theresa Villiers last night apologised to him over the debacle.
Yesterday virtually every party except Sinn Fein –the DUP, UUP, TUV, SDLP, Alliance, UKIP, NI21 and NI Conservatives – condemned the quasi-amnesty letters.
On Tuesday night it emerged that Downey received a letter of assurance from the NIO which his lawyers argued led him to believe he was not being sought by UK police prior to his arrest.
The High Court judgment showed that 187 IRA on the runs had received similar letters stating that they were not wanted for questioning by police about pre-1998 atrocities.
Against a backdrop of building fury from unionists and victims of the IRA, Mr Robinson said: “I am not prepared to be the First Minister of a government that has found itself having salient facts relevant to matters that are devolved hidden from them.
“That is not acceptable to me. I want to have a full judicial inquiry into who knew what, when they knew it and exactly what they did know at the time.
“I also want to ensure that the letters that have been sent out are rescinded.”
Mr Robinson dismissed a claim by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff that both he and DUP MP Nigel Dodds had told him that they “could accept the implementation of the unpopular undertakings we made under the joint declaration on OTRs [on the runs] as long as Tony wrote to Paisley making it clear that these concessions had been agreed during Trimble’s watch, not theirs”.
Mr Robinson said that claim, contained in Jonathan Powell’s book, was entirely inaccurate as the joint declaration referred to had not impacted in any way on the issue of on the runs.
Mr Ford last night said that he had not been told of the issue – even as the letters continued to be sent out after the devolution of policing and justice, something he described as “deeply disturbing”.
SDLP MLA Alex Attwood said that it was “not good enough” that Tony Blair had remained silent over the issue.
Last night Mr Robinson said he now understood pardons had also been granted.
“It appears that we are not just dealing with on the runs who received letters but we are also dealing with people who received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, that indicates there were offences involved,” he said.
“So we are not talking just about people who it is believed that the police did not have sufficient evidence to make a prosecution stick – that makes it a very serious matter.”