Two IRA men suspected of carrying out the Kingsmills massacre were given on-the-run (OTR) ‘comfort’ letters assuring them that they were not wanted for terrorist offences, it has emerged.
The Kingsmills massacre of 1976 saw 10 Protestant textile workers shot dead at the side of a road in south Armagh by the IRA.
The OTR scheme was formulated by the last Labour government at the request of Sinn Fein; some 200 letters were sent to so-called on-the-runs assuring them they were not being actively pursued by the UK authorities.
The PSNI has now disclosed that two Kingsmills suspects had OTR letters, after being asked to clarify the matter by the Crown Solicitor’s Office as part of preparations for an inquest into the massacre.
The Crown Solicitor in turn wrote to solicitors of those who lost loved ones in the atrocity to inform them of the disclosure.
“As a result of your correspondence the PSNI have conducted an exercise of comparing the materials they hold in respect of the OTR letters with the list of suspects identified by PSNI as being suspected of having been involved in some capacity in the Kingsmills murders,” the Crown Solicitor’s Office wrote.
It also confirmed that as recently as 2007 the PSNI advised the Public Prosecution Service that the two IRA suspects were not wanted for prosecution.
“The outcome of that exercise is that PSNI can confirm that two people listed as suspects on the list received an OTR letter. The PSNI advised the PPS in May 2007 that the two individuals in question were not wanted for prosecution. I am informed that one of these individuals is now deceased.”
It was not clear last night whether the PPS was considering prosecuting the two Kingsmills suspects in 2007 – or whether the advice given by the PSNI stopped prosecutions taking place.
Colin Worton, whose brother Kenneth was killed in the atrocity, said he was “not surprised” at the information.
“The question now is – who authorised this and why?” he asked. “Was this part of the deals done behind closed doors with just one party?
“We are told that no unionist parties were a part of this deal.
“It really sickens me and I am sure it will sicken many of the other families too.”
Addressing politicians engaged in current talks about victims at Stormont, he said he would like to see full transparency from both governments.
Senior coroner John Leckey has publicly expressed frustration that the Garda has failed to offer any cooperation to the Kingsmills inquest despite repeated requests over six months.
The van used in the attack was stolen from Co Louth and victims believe the attackers used the Republic as a safe haven.
Mr Worton added: “I would like both British and Irish governments to come clean on what they know about Kingsmills, but I am not very hopeful that unionist politicians in current talks will achieve this.
“I would much prefer they showed us the proposed deal for victims and dealing with the past before they agree to it.”
UUP MLA Danny Kennedy, who has been supporting the Kingsmills families, said the news will come as “no great surprise to the Kingsmills relatives given the duplicitous manner in which successive governments have handled this issue”.
“This issue has been raised directly with the Secretary of State at a meeting in Hillsborough Castle with the Kingsmills families.
“It is very clear that the Secretary of State, HMG, HET officials and senior PSNI commanders have sought to avoid publicly disclosing this information in order to cover where the political tracks might lead.
“It is hard to encourage the families of innocent victims to retain faith in the political, judicial and security authorities given the sordid dealings and lack of action.”
South Armagh victims campaigner Willie Frazer said the Kingsmills families had previously asked the PSNI and Historical Enquiries Team if any suspects had been given such letters. “But nobody seemed to know. Obviously someone has been misleading us, which comes as no surprise,” he said.
The PSNI have so far not offered any comment.