Minister slams legal bill for ex-Hyde Park suspect as victims get nothing

File photo dated 21/07/82 of police forensic officers working on the remains of the IRA car which housed the Hyde Park car bomb in which four soldiers died
File photo dated 21/07/82 of police forensic officers working on the remains of the IRA car which housed the Hyde Park car bomb in which four soldiers died

A cleric who was bereaved by IRA violence has denounced as “despicable” the fact that a man who was suspected of a notorious bombing received more than £50,000 in legal aid, whilst families of his alleged victims got nothing.

Rev Alan Irwin, chairman of the advocacy committee of the South East Fermanagh Foundation victims’ campaign group, was reacting on Thursday to news that publicly-funded defence bill which John Downey racked up as he prepared to fight charges that he bombed London’s Hyde Park in 1982, totalled £52,761.26.

The convicted IRA man had walked free from court in 2014 after his trial collapsed.

Whilst he had been given legal aid, the families of the soldiers killed in the bombing were refused legal aid to bring their own prosecution against him.

Mr Downey was accused of murdering four soldiers and injuring 31 in the attack – something which he denied.

Rev Irwin, an Anglican minister whose own father Thomas – a sewage worker and part-time UDR soldier – had been shot dead by the IRA in 1986, told the News Letter it was “disgusting”, “despicable”, and “degrading in many ways” that he had been given legal aid whilst victims of the bombing had not.

“There’s something seriously wrong, morally wrong, with that,” he said.

He described the sum of over £50,000 as seeming “quite high”.

“£50,000 is quite huge in this day and age, you know?,” he said.

The Co Fermanagh man added: “Many of the victims of terrorist atrocities wouldn’t have the financial capabilities to be able to take a case on their own. I think they deserve the same rights as anyone else.”

He said victims’ relatives who have just heard the news about the scale of the legal aid award will be “justly angered by it all”.

“They [their dead soldier relatives] have given a service to the protection of the country against terrorism and terrorist atrocities and trying to keep a peaceful society, and yet that service is now almost taken for granted,” he said.

The case against Co Donegal man Mr Downey in London’s Old Bailey was ended because government officials mistakenly sent him a letter in 2007, as part of a controversial On The Runs scheme, telling him he was no longer a wanted man.

In a written parliamentary question tabled in Parliament, the non-affiliated peer Lord Laird asked how much had been paid to Mr Downey’s legal team.

Responding for the government, Ministry of Justice spokesman Lord Keen of Elie said: “Anyone facing a crown court trial is eligible for legal aid, subject to a strict means test.”

The figures showed that from May 2013 to December 2014 a total of £18,705.47 was paid to solicitors Birnberg Peirce Ltd, while his barristers Henry Blaxland QC and Mark J Summers received £20,089 and £12,966.79 respectively.

The overall sum came to £51,761.26.

Having been turned down for legal aid assistance, the relatives of some of those killed in the Hyde Park attack have launched a campaign in a bid to raise funds to bring a private court action, the cost of which has been put at £650,000.

As well as losing his father to the IRA, Rev Irwin’s uncle was also killed.