First Minister Peter Robinson has dramatically threatened to quit unless a judicial review is ordered into the secret quasi-amnesty letters which emerged at the collapse of the Hyde Park bomb trial.
In what appears to building into the most serious crisis to hit the Stormont Executive since power-sharing was restored in 2007, the DUP leader said he was not prepared to be First Minister unless he received answers.
Mr Robinson alleged that he had been “deceived” by the British Government.
On Tuesday night it emerged that John Downey, 62, received a letter of assurance from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) which his lawyers argued led him to believe he was not being sought by UK police prior to his arrest.
A judgement handed down at the Old Bailey in London 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“I also want to ensure that the letters that have been sent out are rescinded.”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 Mr 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.
The development is reminiscent of the frequent crises which beset former First Minister David Trimble’s administration, which often appeared on the point of collapse.
However, since 2007 the political system has appeared remarkably stable under the leadership of the DUP and Sinn Fein, something which the DUP has cited as one of the strengths of the arrangements for devolution which it put in place in the St Andrews Agreement.
A DUP spokesman said that Mr Robinson had already made the Prime Minister’s office aware of his position and that he would be meeting Secretary of State Theresa Villiers when she arrives in Northern Ireland from London later on Wednesday.