Ministers may have misled Parliament over a scheme in which secret letters were sent to IRA fugitives telling them they were not wanted for Troubles crimes, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds has said.
Mr Dodds said ministers may have made a number of misleading Commons statements about messages sent to around 200 IRA “on the runs” informing them that they were not wanted by police. The Government insist the messages did not constitute immunity from prosecution.
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) scheme emerged during the collapse of the trial of alleged Hyde Park bomber John Downey after police mistakenly sent him one of the letters even though he was sought by the Metropolitan Police.
Mr Dodds called for the Commons record to be corrected if necessary and was told by Speaker John Bercow that it would be the NIO’s responsibility to do so if it judged it appropriate.
Raising a point of order in the Commons, Mr Dodds said: “I don’t know whether this will be categorised as juicy or not but it certainly will be juicy back home in Northern Ireland and it is the issue of the revelations of an administrative scheme on the run people in Northern Ireland.
“This has come as a bolt out of the blue to people in Northern Ireland and indeed to this House.
“Careful perusal and examination of the parliamentary record going back over a number of years indicates that there were occasions when this House may have been misled by ministerial statement, whether oral or written, and I would ask you to advise the House as to what can be done now that there can be a thorough examination of how this matter was handled by ministers in their public utterances in this House and what action can be taken now to correct the record and put the facts before the House and have this matter thoroughly aired?”
Mr Bercow replied: “My initial response is that it is open to the Northern Ireland Office which will be privy to all of the material to correct the record if it judges that that is necessary.”
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, established after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement which largely ended the 30-year conflict, was thrown into crisis by the Downey revelations last Tuesday.
The oyster farmer, 62, from County Donegal, had pleaded not guilty to the murder of four soldiers from the Household Cavalry who died in the Hyde Park blast on 20 July 1982 along with seven of their horses.
The bomb had been concealed in a car and was detonated as the soldiers rode past on ceremonial duties.
Downey was detained in May last year at Gatwick airport en route to Greece and spent nine months in custody awaiting trial.
But he dramatically walked free after an Old Bailey judge stopped the case because a letter had been erroneously sent to him from the Government prior to his arrest saying he was not wanted by the police.
The message, which gave no guarantee that future evidence would not emerge linking him to Hyde Park, was sent as part of political talks between Sinn Fein and Tony Blair’s administration linked to the consolidation of the peace process.
The revelation that many others received similar letters prompted outrage from victims of terrorism who branded them “get out of jail free” cards.
Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson said he had been kept in the dark and threatened to resign. He withdrew the threat after Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee has decided to establish an inquiry into the Government’s administrative scheme for fugitives.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Upper Bann MP David Simpson said: “It is a long time since I have witnessed such agreement amongst the committee members.
“Everyone was agreed that this underhand and immoral scheme needed to be fully investigated.
“We need to establish how it was set up, its legal basis and how it was administered.”
He said the committee wanted to know why, when First Minister Peter Robinson asked for an assurance from then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain in 2006 that no other procedure would be used to allow fugitives to return, the senior Labour cabinet member said: “There is no other procedure.”
Mr Simpson said the inquiry will complement the judicial probe ordered by the Prime Minister and various investigations in Northern Ireland.