PSNI chief Matt Baggott to face questions over ‘on-the’run letters

Chief Constable Matt Baggott
Chief Constable Matt Baggott

Northern Ireland’s chief constable will face questions from MPs today on the controversial Government scheme that issued so-called letters of comfort to fugitive republicans.

Matt Baggott is due to give evidence to the ongoing Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into the contentious on-the-run (OTR) administrative process, agreed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government, which saw letters sent to about 190 republicans informing them they were not being sought by the authorities in the UK.

Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, who heads up the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) Crime Operations team, will accompany Mr Baggott to this afternoon’s hearing.

The committee meeting is set to be Mr Baggott’s first public appearance since Gerry Adams was released from police custody on Sunday after being questioned for four days about the murder of Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville in 1972. A police file is being sent to prosecutors to assess whether on not to bring charges against the Sinn Fein president, who vehemently denies any involvement in the killing.

Yesterday Mr Baggott rejected an allegation from Sinn Fein that the “dark side” of policing in Northern Ireland had orchestrated Mr Adams’ detention.

But today’s evidence session is set to focus primarily on the OTR controversy.

Details of the scheme, which started running in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, emerged after the collapse of a case against a man accused of the IRA’s Hyde Park bomb in 1982 - an attack that killed four soldiers.

The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, over the Hyde Park outrage was halted in February after a judge found he had been wrongly sent one of the letters, when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him. Mr Downey denied involvement in the attack.

Police in Northern Ireland have been heavily criticised for their handling of the case. Halting the prosecution at the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Sweeney said sending the letter to Mr Downey had been a ‘’catastrophic’’ mistake.

Mr Baggott apologised on behalf of the service in the wake of the judgment.

As well as the committee investigation into the on-the-run scheme, a judge is conducting another review.

The inquiry headed by Lady Justice Hallett, which was ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron, is due to report in the summer.