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On-the-run letters are of no value says DPP

LETTERS to on-the-run republicans telling them they are not wanted by police are of "no value", according to the north's chief prosecutor.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Barra McGrory said the assurances are not an impediment to prosecution if new evidence emerges, as he described the British government scheme as flawed.

Giving evidence to Westminster's Northern Ireland Select Committee yesterday, Mr McGrory said he did not believe any leading members of Sinn Féin had received the controversial letters, which told suspects living outside Britain they were not being sought for Troubles-related crimes.

"Anyone who is in receipt of one of these letters ought not to be sleeping easy in their beds," he said in response to questions during the second day of the committee's special sitting at Stormont.

Police are reviewing the cases of around 200 people who received the letters and a judge is due to report back on the issue later this month.

The DPP told MPs that if evidence was uncovered by police they should "consider that as potential prosecution and if it meets the evidential test then the individual will be prosecuted".

"I would argue as a prosecutor that they are of no value to them," he said.

The committee's probe into the British government's OTR scheme was launched after the collapse of the trial of a man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 hyde Park bombing.

Mr McGrory said John Downey's case was different from others because he had been sent a letter in error. He added that recent advances in DNA analysis showed how new evidence could emerge in some cases and lead to prosecution, despite a suspect having received a letter.

During further evidence to the committee yesterday, First Minister Peter Robinson described the on-the-runs scheme a "dark chapter" for the British government.

The DUP leader told the committee he was not aware of the "deliberate duplicity".

"I have to say that I was appalled that such a scheme was ever put in place and equally concerned that it was being done in a covert way," he said.

"The scheme was hatched in the full knowledge that victims could be denied the possibility of justice."

The east Belfast MLA said the scheme was "inequitable, sectarian - a concession to republicans alone".

Attorney General John Larkin, legal adviser to the Stormont executive, was meanwhile quizzed on whether suspects could have been tipped off if they applied for a letter and failed to get one. He told the committee a refusal could amount to being told to "stay where you are" to avoid arrest and added this seemed to give rise to the offence of attempting to pervert the course of justice.

"It strikes me that the aspect of the scheme which has been relatively under-explored has been the indication, by whatever means, to individuals that the police are still looking for them," he said.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that the British government secretly gave royal pardons to paramilitaries in return for information. However, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said it would be wrong to name those granted a royal prerogative in cases which in some instances date back to 1980s.

She added that there was an argument for making details public in future cases. Her comments follow revelations that royal prerogatives of mercy were used in 16 terrorism-related cases in the years immediately after the Good Friday Agreement.

Ms Villiers claimed it was impossible to give a total beyond that, because records for the decade leading up to the peace agreement had either been lost or not kept.

She told the BBC that there were several instances when pardons or prerogatives of mercy had been granted during Margaret Thatcher's time in government.

* QUESTIONED: Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory speaks to Westminster's Northern Ireland Select Committee yesterday. Right, from top, First Minister Peter Robinson, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and attorney General John Larkin

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