Shankill bomb suspects ‘did not receive comfort letters’

PACEMAKER BELFAST    Archive  Flashback to 1993
IRA bomb in Frizell's Fish shop killed 9 innocent people and one bomber.
Picture shows a scene of devastation across the Shankill Road on a busy Saturday afternoon
PACEMAKER BELFAST Archive Flashback to 1993 IRA bomb in Frizell's Fish shop killed 9 innocent people and one bomber. Picture shows a scene of devastation across the Shankill Road on a busy Saturday afternoon

None of six suspects identified over the IRA’s Shankill Road bomb atrocity received so-called comfort letters issued in the controversial On The Runs scheme, the High Court heard today.

Counsel for Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and the PSNI gave the assurance as he resisted a legal challenge brought by a pensioner who lost three members of her family in the terrorist outrage.

But 81-year-old Elizabeth Morrison’s barrister argued that the secretive process linked to nearly 300 murders was unlawful and represented a wilful abandonment of evidence gathering opportunities.

Rejecting a House of Commons statement by Ms Villiers where she warned paramilitary suspects who received the letters not to rely on them as an amnesty from prosecution, Alan Kane QC said: “It’s not worth the Hansard paper it’s printed on.”

Mrs Morrison’s son Michael, his partner Evelyn Baird and their seven-year-old daughter Michelle were among 10 people killed in the October 1993 attack on Belfast’s Shankill Road.

Her legal challenge centres on a press report that one of the bomb suspects who fled across the Irish border was among nearly 200 republicans in receipt of a secret letter stating he was not wanted by police.

The On The Runs scheme provoked outrage after Co Donegal man John Downey’s trial on charges linked to the 1982 London Hyde Park bombing collapsed in February 2014.

He had been mistakenly sent a government letter saying he was not wanted for questioning by police.

The full scale of the administrative scheme involving other republican paramilitary suspects then emerged.

Police were said to believe 95 of those people who received letters could be linked to nearly 300 murders.

Mrs Morrison’s High Court action had been put on hold pending the outcome of separate judicial and parliamentary inquiries into the controversial process.

An independent review carried out by Lady Justice Hallett found significant systemic failures but concluded that the letters were not an amnesty and the scheme was lawful.

The Northern Ireland Affairs committee separately concluded that it had damaged the integrity of the criminal justice system.

Following those probes the legal challenge resumed today with Mr Justice Maguire questioning if the case has been rendered academic by the Government now “disowning” the letters.

Tony McGleenan QC, for the Secretary of State and PSNI, argued that there was no proper basis for continuing the challenge.

He referred to a review by the police Historical Enquiries Team that identified six suspects in connection with the Shankill Road attack - convicted bomber Sean Kelly and five others never named.

“None of the individual suspects in relation to the bombing are recorded as having received these letters of comfort,” Mr McGleenan confirmed.

“There’s no linkage between any person suspected of this atrocity and the letters under the administrative scheme.”

But Mr Kane countered that it was an improper way to deal with killings carried out across Northern Ireland.

“This is a scheme which was effectively run in secret, during which it was disclosed that there were almost 300 murders committed by people who received these On The Run letters,” he contended.

The barrister claimed that despite intelligence, suspects were not arrested and victims ignored.

“Throughout the On The Run scheme one sees that the opportunity (to obtain evidence) was quite wilfully being abandoned, and wanted to be abandoned by the powers that be,” he argued.

Reserving judgment on the application for leave to seek a judicial review, Mr Justice Maguire pledged to give his decision as soon as possible.