PSNI legacy chief says he is coming for IRA On-The-Runs

The PSNI has confirmed that it is planning to arrest “a number” of the 33 IRA members who were classed as wanted by police before they received so-called government ‘comfort’ letters.

Saturday, 8th February 2020, 6:30 am
Updated Saturday, 8th February 2020, 11:06 am
Detective Chief Superintendent Bobby Singleton, who leads the PSNI's Legacy Investigations Branch, detailed his plans to the News Letter.

The news was broken to the News Letter by the head of the PSNI Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB), Detective Chief Superintendent Bobby Singleton, right, after his team spent over five years and £4m reviewing 502 terrorist incidents linked to the 33.

The information is likely to come as a further shock to IRA members, who will have been wondering what their status before the law might be after ‘test case’ John Downey from Donegal was acquitted of the Hyde Park bombings in 2014 on the strength of his government On-The-Run (OTR) letter.

The letters were part of a secret deal between Tony Blair and Sinn Fein in 1999 to assure 200 IRA members they were not wanted for Troubles related terror offences. However Mr Downey was extradited to Northern Ireland last year where he currently faces charges relating to the murder of two UDR officers in Enniskillen in 1972.

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John Downey in court in Omagh last year on charges relating to the murder of two UDR soldiers

The news is also likely to give some small sliver of hope to IRA victims who still feel there is a slim chance of justice for their murdered loved ones.

Following public outcry about Downey’s acquittal and the emergence of the OTR scheme into the public domain, Lady Justice Hallett carried out a review which found 36 ‘Priority One’ suspects who were initially categorised as ‘wanted’ by police for a range of terrorist related crimes – until the OTR scheme changed them to ‘not wanted’.

The LIB team identified a further four suspects who ought to be in this category but the overal number of 40 was reduced to 33 Priority One suspects after it was established that seven had died.

This leaves 33 ‘Priority One’ suspects whose cases Mr Singleton’s team have now almost finished reviewing.

Asked how many of them he expects to arrest, he said: “A number – Further disclosure of more specific information may prompt individuals to either seek to leave the jurisdiction of the UK or not seek to re-enter the jurisdiction on the basis that they may be liable to arrest, therefore making them unavailable for police to question or arrest.”

The police review team have still to review a further 148 Priority Two suspects who were not wanted when they got their OTR letters.

Mr Singleton was speaking to the News Letter after police revealed details of his review to this paper under a Freedom of Information request.

UUP Justice Spokesman Doug Beattie and TUV leader Jim Allister were both surprised by the £4m his review has cost so far – and pressed for answers on what results would be produced.

Mr Beattie noted that over £4m has been spent reviewing Priority One suspects alone.

“Given that another 158 individuals who received letters remain to have reviews completed, it is clear that the total bill could be a very considerable sum indeed, and I for one would want to see some positive results in terms of action and prosecutions, given that senior law officers have said that OTR letters are not legally enforceable,” he said.

Mr Allister also took issue with the pace of the investigation since 2014. “It is disturbing that a matter which is a such significance to the innocent victims of terrorism is progressing at a snail’s pace” he said. To have looked at such a small number when there is another 158 to consider is “scandalous, particularly when the cost is in excess of £4m,” he said.

He also said it was “difficult to understand” why the PSNI refused to reveal to the News Letter how many of the OTR suspects are now wanted.

“It is no secret that the OTR issue is an embarrassment to the peace process and it would seem that the police are prepared to play along with those who have a vested interest in burying a matter which could upset the political process,” he said.

But Mr Singleton gave a stout defence of his team’s work, saying they have reviewed 502 fatal and non-fatal terror incidents linked to the 33 suspects, including reviews of forensic evidence – and fresh forensic examinations.

The meticulousness of their work, he said, explained why it has cost £4m since 2014, a major expenditure compared to his department’s annual budget of £5m. The total PSNI legacy budget is up to £25m per year, he said.

“The PSNI’s ‘On the Run Review Process’ has now been completed for almost all of the 33 persons who had their status changed as a result of the scheme,” he said.

“The review process has been complicated, lengthy and labour-intensive. This is a significant and important piece of work, not least because of the continuing public interest in the issue, which has been the responsibility of a small team of experienced detectives. The OTR team have examined the role of ‘OTRs’ in more than 500 fatal and non-fatal incidents.”

The purpose of the ongoing LIB review, he said, is to establish “the absolute accuracy” of the list of individuals who have been advised they are ‘wanted’ or ‘not wanted’ and to review the status of all ‘On-the-runs’ as to whether they are ‘wanted’ or ‘not wanted’ for interview in the UK, he said.

Some of the 33 suspects have already been questioned as part of LIB’s broader work, through the PSNI case sequencing model, which seeks to identify cases with the best chance of convictions “and in doing so protect the public”.

Arrest decisions will be made “by the senior investigating officer” and will be made inside LIB he said.

LIB has 70 staff and 1,130 cases touching on 1,420 deaths – 581 by republicans, 294 by loyalists, 340 by security forces, 69 by unknowns and 136 non-terror related, he added.