Former Labour Secretary of State Shaun Woodward told MPs he had been assured that what have now come to be known as ‘comfort letters’ to IRA fugitives “were statements of fact and nothing more than that”.
Mr Woodward denied that his actions showed the government and those involved in the scheme did not care about victims.
He insisted that officials involved in the scheme had operated “in good faith” and within the law at all times.
He accused Norman Baxter of being “misleading” and making “outrageous comments” about Peter Hain after the former detective said that Mr Hain seemed to have “glee” in supporting Downey in court and seeing him go free.
Committee chairman Laurence Robertson said it was difficult to reconcile Mr Woodward’s claim that the letters were only “statements of fact” with his claim that they were crucial to “saving the peace process”.
Mr Woodward said he was surprised by the outcome of the Downey case: “I remain astonished that these letters can be used to take the force that they did, can be used to take the interpretation that they have.”
He said in 2007 he was meeting a regular procession of politicians, particularly from the smaller parties, warning of trouble with Stormont’s power-sharing administration. He added critics needed to consider the scheme in that context.
“There were real problems there that were going to need to be dealt with.”
He added: “The big issue was a political process that was falling apart at the seams.”
But DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr said they represented the halcyon days of a new administration.