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Villiers denies three 'on the runs' cleared in March

Published 10/06/2014

Michael McHugh




THREE fugitive republicans previously wanted by police in connection with conflict-related investigations were confirmed as "cleared" at the start of March, Sinn Féin has said. However, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said no so-called letters of assurance, which told applicants to a special scheme that they are not wanted by detectives probing troubles-related crimes, have been sent since 2012.

She said the British government administrative scheme which provided the messages to OTRs (on the runs) is over and five outstanding applications will not be processed.

A Sinn Féin statement said: "Three individuals, who Sinn Féin had previously been told by the NIO (Northern Ireland Office) remained 'wanted' by the PSNI were confirmed as 'cleared' by the NIO on March 3 2014."

The process for dealing with OTRs sparked controversy. Opponents branded it a grubby deal to win Sinn Féin support while supporters insisted it did not constitute an amnesty but was a necessary compromise to support the peace process.

An agreement between Sinn Féin and the last British Labour government saw around 200 letters sent to republican OTRs, informing them that British police were not actively seeking them - but not ruling out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

The administrative process was established in the years following the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement and was administered by the NIO with the involvement of Downing Street and senior law figures.

The aim was to deal with cases of republicans who were suspected of IRA activity but who were never charged or convicted of related offences.

The scheme was disclosed followed the collapse of the Hyde Park bomb trial, which was stopped when it emerged the man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA bombing had received one of the letters.

John Downey, from Co Donegal, had denied the charges.

Sinn Féin faced criticism yesterday after it said it would not send Gerry Kelly, who was involved in the scheme, to give evidence to a committee of MPs probing the letters scheme. However, the party submitted written evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee which said: n During the period from January 2000 to December 2012 a total of 214 individuals requested Sinn Féin's assistance in seeking clarity around their legal status if they returned to the six counties n Most of these cases were processed through the 'administrative route' n Between April 2007 and July 2013 a total of 35 cases were processed through the 'legal route' n Three individuals were arrested and charged while awaiting clarity. Two were subsequently acquitted of all charges; the other was sentenced to 20 years in 2011 and released in 2013.

Sinn Féin said: "A relatively small number were informed that they were wanted or that their cases were under review.

"All relevant individuals above were informed by the British authorities that if an '...outstanding offence or offences came to light, or if any request for extradition were to be received, these would have to be dealt with in the usual way'."

The party said the issue or use of amnesty plays no part in any of these cases.

"Other cases were, we understand, raised by the Irish government.

"Yet others may have been raised independently by individuals or through their legal representatives."

Meanwhile, a senior civil servant said the sending of the letters was not illegal or immoral.

The Justice Department's permanent secretary, Nick Perry, testified that the process established by the former Labour administration to deal with on the runs was scrutinised by senior law officers. He gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs, sitting in Belfast.

Mr Perry said: "There may be all sorts of issues about it being distasteful. It was not illegal and to that extent I don't believe it was immoral."

Committee chairman Laurence robertson said 95 of those who received letters were connected through intelligence to almost 300 murders.

DUP Upper Bann MP David Simpson said: "It shows us the depth that the government of then were prepared to go in order to get Sinn Féin on board.

"It is a can of worms and it is really corrupt."

Mr Perry is a former senior government official at the NIO. He said the letters started towards the tail end of his time there, before he was transferred to Stormont's justice department on devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster in 2010. he said an issue like the on the runs or the early release of prisoners had to be judged alongside the goal of achieving a lasting political peace settlement and saving people's lives. He said the scheme was a "factual" expression of the situation at the time, reiterating that it did not rule out future prosecutions if new evidence emerged.

Mr robertson said: "I am surprised and disappointed at Mr Kelly's refusal to come and give evidence in public on this important issue.

"One of the biggest problems with this scheme is the secrecy that has surrounded it until now, and it is important now to open it up to public scrutiny, which is what we are trying to do in this inquiry.

"I will be writing to Mr Kelly asking some further questions about his and Sinn Fein's evidence, and contesting some of his assertions."

* CRITICISM: Sinn Féin faced criticism yesterday after it said it would not send Gerry Kelly to give evidence to a committee of MPs probing the on-the-runs scheme. Right, Theresa Villiers