Allowing the use of intelligence intercept evidence in UK courts would have enabled prosecutions to be mounted against many murder suspects in Northern Ireland, a former Secretary of State for the Province has said.
Paul Murphy expressed his support for a change in the law as he gave evidence to a Westminster committee investigating a scheme set up by the last Labour Government that saw around 200 so-called letters of assurance sent to fugitive republicans informing them they were not wanted by the UK authorities.
In a previous evidence hearing of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s inquiry, a senior police commander told MPs that 95 of the people sent letters were linked, by intelligence, to 295 murders during the Troubles.
During today’s session Mr Murphy, who was Northern Ireland Secretary from 2002 to 2005, was asked for his view of those intelligence links.
“So long as this country will not allow the use of intercept as evidence in court then it’s not evidence,” he said.
“Now my own personal view, which I expressed when I was chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (at Westminster), was it should be allowed because the times that I have read names, right across the spectrum in Northern Ireland, of people who had done terrible things but couldn’t be prosecuted because there was no evidence allowable was very often very distressing and I would often ask the question, ‘why on earth can’t we prosecute this person?’.
“And we couldn’t because the evidence gathered in the way it was could not be used in courts.
“Which is why I say I think it is wrong not to be able to use intercept, which most countries can.”
The committee launched the inquiry into the letters scheme in the wake of the high-profile collapse of the case against a man accused of murdering four soldiers in the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing in 1982.
The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, over bombing was halted in February this year after Mr Justice Sweeney found he had been wrongly sent a government letter of assurance in 2007 informing him the authorities were not pursuing him, when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him.
The judge decided his arrest when he travelled through Gatwick airport last year and the subsequent prosecution had therefore represented an abuse of process. Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.
Mr Murphy told committee members that while he was aware of the wider issue of “on-the-runs” during his time in office he had no specific recollection of the letters scheme.
He explained that as it was designed as a purely administrative process it was not considered a matter of high priority.
“I’m not saying I didn’t know about it, but I cannot recall certainly it being an issue in the way it developed into as the years went by,” he said.
“My knowledge of it was pretty slim, if at all, but I won’t deny that I saw it, but I can’t say that I remember it.”
Months after leaving office, Mr Murphy expressed concern from the back benches over an ill-fated attempt by the Government to legislate on on-the-runs – a law that, if passed, would have effectively enabled those fugitives who were wanted to return to the UK.
The Labour MP insisted the administrative scheme was far less significant than those proposals, as it was supposed to only process those who were not wanted.
He described the events that led to Mr Downey being sent a letter as a “monumental cock-up”.
The PSNI is currently conducting a review of all the cases to establish if any other mistakes were made.
The latest evidence session took place just days before a judge-led review into the administrative scheme ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron is due to be published.
The Government will outline the findings of Lady Justice Hallett’s investigation to Parliament on Thursday.