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I should have told Stormont about letters says Villiers

Published 08/03/2014

John Manley Political Reporter




SECRETARY of State Theresa Villiers has voiced regret for not telling members of the Stormont executive about the letters of assurance issued to republican OTRs.

Mrs Villiers was speaking in Belfast yesterday where she said the controversial letters were not 'get out of jail free cards' and that the associated administrative scheme run through the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) was now closed. The secretary of state also moved to quash speculation about six pending OTR (on the run) cases.

She insisted the NIO would not consider issuing letters to the individuals concerned. The storm over the apparently secret OTR deal between the British government and Sinn Fein has raged since the trial of John Downey collapsed on February 25. The 61-year-old Donegal man had been on trial for the 1982 Hyde Park bomb in which four British soldiers died. Mr Downey walked free when it emerged that he had been issued with a letter in error which provided assurance that he was not being sought for questioning.

It subsequently emerged that 187 similar letters had been sent by the NIO over the past decade, including 12 since the conservative/Lib Dem coalition came to power in 2010. Last week Prime Minister David Cameron said there would be a judge-led inquiry into the administration of the scheme.

Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kinahan yesterday said he knew of a second case where a letter similar to that provided to Mr Downey had been issued in error to another republican suspect.

Mrs Villiers said the Otr scheme was now finished and she insisted the letters had not been rescinded as they were merely a "statement of fact" at a particular time.

She said the NIO ceased its involvement in the administrative process in 2012 when it was decided that no fresh cases would be considered. The secretary of state said she regretted

not keeping members of the Stormont executive informed about the scheme.

"that (2012) was certainly a point at which I should have spoken to the justice minister -- I regret that I didn't and I've apologised to David Ford," she said.

Mrs Villiers insisted that suspects would be arrested and prosecuted whether they had a letter or not.

"I am determined to provide that clarity to make sure that people understand the nature of the letters and that no one believes they can rely on them as an immunity because that is not what they confer," she said.

Sinn Fein accused the conservative MP of showing "bad faith" in reneging on the agreement on on-the-runs (OTRs). Conor Murphy, pictured, Sinn Fein MP for Newry and Armagh, said: "What her comments smack of is her complete lack of understanding of the peace process and the political viewpoints of republicans and nationalists, something which has been typical of her tenure in the north.

"Both the British and Irish governments signed up to deal with this anomaly at the Weston Park talks (political summit in 2001) and this current British Government adhered to it.

"to renege on this agreement between governments, following pressure from unionists, is a sign of bad faith."

DUP leader Peter Robinson said the PSNI had to clarify whether they were still investigating cases potentially linked to individuals who had been sent letters.

"I think the one area, and it wasn't for the secretary of state to pick it up, that is still left to be dealt with is whether there are ongoing investigations into the cases where letters have been issued," he said.

"That's a vital area because effectively without those ongoing investigations into those cases then largely it is immunity, the cases are closed, so I think we want that clarification from the PSNI."