The top official at Northern Ireland’s justice department has said he did not know a Government scheme to deal with fugitive republicans continued after devolution in 2010.
David Cameron has announced a judicial probe following the collapse of a case against a man accused of the IRA’s Hyde Park bomb in 1982 - an attack that killed four soldiers.
The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, was halted earlier this year when it emerged he was wrongly sent a so-called letter of assurance informing him the authorities in the UK were not looking for him. Mr Downey, who was sought by the Metropolitan Police, denied murdering the troops.
Around 190 letters were sent to on-the-runs (OTRs) under a scheme agreed by the previous Labour government and Sinn Fein as part of the peace process, the trial was told.
Nick Perry, senior civil servant at Stormont’s Justice Department, said: “I had no knowledge of it continuing after devolution but responsibility for the operation of this scheme and for information being made available about it rests with the (NIO) secretary of state.”
Powers over policing and justice were transferred from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to Stormont in April 2010.
Mr Perry, permanent secretary at the DoJ, is a former senior government official at the NIO.
Justice Minister David Ford has said Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers should have told him about the “shabby backdoor deal”. But he said Mr Perry could not disclose it because of strict civil service rules.
Mr Perry told Stormont’s justice committee of MLAs: “Disclosure of information about the OTRs scheme rests with the ministers who had political and operational responsibility for it and those are direct rule (NIO) ministers.”
In February 2007, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) began Operation Rapid, a review of people wanted in connection with terrorism-related offences up to April 10 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement which largely ended the armed conflict was signed.
The review examined what basis, if any, the PSNI had to seek the arrest of individuals identified by Sinn Fein to the government and passed to the chief constable.
It was on the basis of these reviews, the Downey hearing was told, that letters of assurance were sent, or not, to the individual about whose status Sinn Fein had inquired. This would inform their decisions on whether to travel to the UK.
Mr Perry said he had no knowledge of Operation Rapid.
During private hearings at the Old Bailey before the Downey trial was stopped, it was disclosed that Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff, wrote to Mr Perry about the issue in June 2000 when he was in the NIO.
Mr Perry remained a senior official there for a decade before joining the Department of Justice, working for Mr Ford.
The justice minister has said Mr Perry did not tell him about it because he is forbidden by the civil service code from taking information from one minister to another.
A judge investigating a Government scheme to deal with fugitive republicans will not be required to examine each individual case in detail or consider the lawfulness of letters sent to IRA suspects, official correspondence has indicated.
The exchanges between a senior official in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales reveal exactly what the Government expects of Lady Justice Heather Hallett - the judge appointed to conduct the review ordered by the Prime Minister.
With Stormont politicians having disagreed on what the probe will deliver, the letters between Julian King, the director general of the NIO, and Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd provide the fullest detail to date. They have been published on the suggestion of Lord Thomas.
Democratic Unionist MLA Paul Givan said legislation at the point of devolution did not explicitly state that an administrative scheme providing letters to republicans will be retained and will be a reserved matter for Westminster to deal with.
He added: “You make an assumption that because a direct rule minister says this is a matter we are going to keep, therefore it is an issue you are now going to close your ears to and shut your eyes to without getting any independent legal advice as permanent secretary of the DoJ.
“I find that not just remarkable, incredulous, that that is the position you would take.”
Mr Perry said he was making a “reasonable assumption” that the division between devolved and non-devolved matters which direct rule ministers took was taken on the basis of authoritative legal advice.
He said issues that were devolved were the ones he briefed Mr Ford on.
Mr Givan claimed during the hearing: “If I was the minister for justice and you had withheld this information from me you would not be my permanent secretary because it would be a clear breach of trust, in my view, that you withheld this information based on nothing more than your own assumptions.”
The civil servant said he was entirely satisfied that he had acted entirely in line with guidance issued by Stormont’s power-sharing Executive and constitutional arrangements surrounding devolution of justice.