The fact that a convicted IRA member escaped trial for the 1982 Hyde Park bomb due to a Government letter of immunity caused widespread anger yesterday.
First Minister Peter Robinson labelled the outcome a “sad day for victims of terrorism”.
“This conclusion is an outrage and a dark day for justice in the United Kingdom,” he said. “Mr Downey was being tried for one of the most heinous atrocities of the Troubles, but has now invoked a get-out-of-jail free card which he and his cohorts were handed by Tony Blair’s Government.”
He added: “This charade has its origins in the Weston Park talks. At that time, though a smaller party, we warned the then unionist leadership that this type of deal was being concocted behind their back.”
According to Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, 187 letters were distributed to republicans between 2001 and 2012.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers confirmed yesterday that her Government had carried on cases approved by its predecessors.
But UUP justice spokesman Tom Elliott branded the letters “a disgrace”.
He added: “The fact that this should be revealed in the very week when the PSNI have set up a special unit to re-investigate Bloody Sunday, with the aim of putting 70-year-old ex-soldiers in the dock, makes this even more galling.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said the judgment is “another indication of the price being paid by innocent victims for the so-called peace process. It lifts the lid on some of the rotten skulduggery involved.”
And UKIP MLA David McNarry said the question to be asked now is: “What other letters which are not just amnesties but freedom from justice are in circulation?”
Alliance justice spokesperson Stewart Dickson said that when the previous Labour Government abandoned on the run amnesty legislation his party called for “a clear and transparent system to deal with this issue, which they failed to deliver”.
According to NI Conservatives’ spokesman Mark Brotherston, the fact that a man accused of four IRA murders will not be prosecuted is “extremely regrettable”.
Laurence Robertson, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, said he was a shadow Northern Ireland minister when the Labour Government dropped the on the run legislation – because Sinn Fein no longer supported it.
“However, at no point did the minister [David Hanson MP] tell me, nor did the Secretary of State, Peter Hain, announce that they would seek to extend some form of amnesty to the on the runs,” he said.
Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United (IVU) said he was not surprised.
IVU has long suspected that “a quasi-policy of immunity from prosecution” existed for republican terrorists for pre-1998 crimes, he said.
On hearing of the letters yesterday, one terror widow asked him, “What have I done to deserve this?” he said.
But Sinn Fein MP Francie Molloy said the charging of John Downey was “a clear breach of commitments given by the British Government at Weston Park and in subsequent negotiations”.
He said that following the Good Friday Agreement both the British and Irish governments accepted that the issue of those defined as on the run was “an anomaly and the two governments committed to resolve the issue. A process was put in place to deal with outstanding cases including that of John Downey.”
He added that Downey is “a valued member of Sinn Fein and a long-time advocate of the peace process” and had taken part in events at Corrymeela.
A soldier who survived the Hyde Park bombing never recovered from the attack – leading to devastating consequences 30 years later.
Michael Pedersen, a former sergeant in the Household Cavalry, stabbed his two children to death before turning the knife on himself just weeks after telling his doctor that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The 1982 bomb hit as Pedersen’s unit was taking part in a changing of the guard ceremony.
Four soldiers and seven horses were killed in the explosion.
Pedersen was riding Sefton – the horse that became the symbol of the struggle against the IRA after surviving the attack.
Three decades after the attack, Pedersen killed his two children – seven-year-old son Ben and daughter Freya, six – then stabbed himself through the heart. A coroner recorded verdicts of unlawful killings of the two children and one of suicide for Pedersen.