Stormont backs motion criticising British government over 'on-the-runs'

Friday 28 February 2014 19.17
1 of 2
The controversy was debated during a two-hour emergency session of the Assembly
The controversy was debated during a two-hour emergency session of the Assembly
Peter Robinson had threatened to resign earlier in the week
Peter Robinson had threatened to resign earlier in the week

A majority of Northern Ireland's Assembly members have supported a motion that criticised the British government for the administrative system it agreed with Sinn Féin to clarify the status of so-called on-the-runs.

The controversy was debated during a two-hour emergency session of the Assembly.

The vote was carried by 58 votes to 27.

The debate was triggered by DUP leader Peter Robinson after Tuesday's collapse of an Old Bailey trial of a Donegal man sought in connection with the 1982 Hyde Park bombing. 

John Downey had been given a letter by the Northern Ireland Office in 2007, saying he was not on a wanted list of the PSNI or any other police force. 

This was inaccurate as police in London wanted to interview him in connection with the IRA's Hyde Park bombing that claimed the lives of four British soldiers.

British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday announced that a judge is to review the working of the administrative process that allowed individuals to establish with the Northern Ireland office if they were being sought by the police. 

Soon after the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Féin began to lobby the British and Irish governments over the on-the-runs issue.

It emerged during the week that over 200 people have received letters from the Northern Ireland Office, clarifying their status.

Political responsibility for Justice and Policing matters was transferred from Westminster in April 2010. 

In the four years since, 36 individuals have received a letter from the Northern Ireland Office setting out their status.

However, Northern Ireland's Justice Minister David Ford was not told about the scheme that the NIO was operating.

Mr Ford today indicated that the scheme to deal with on-the-runs was still active.

He claimed that applications from five on-the-run republican terror suspects for letters assuring them they will not be prosecuted in the UK are still being considered by the government.

The disclosure has created uncertainty over whether the administrative scheme is still being run by the coalition government.

More than 180 republicans have already received letters telling them they are not currently wanted by the police in the UK.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said that her predecessor, Conservative MP Owen Paterson, had informed Sinn Féin that no new cases would be dealt with by the current government, apart from the 38 it inherited on taking office, and had urged the republican party to bring new applications to the devolved authorities at Stormont.

But Mr Ford said his understanding from a discussion with a senior Northern Ireland Office official this morning was that there were five cases still being dealt with by the government and that those only emerged in late 2012 - more than two years after the coalition came to power.

Mr Ford said he was assured that the NIO had responsibility for the cases and not his devolved department.

Ms Villiers said she was briefed on the scheme when she came to office in September 2012.

"It was explained to me that my predecessor looked at it when he was appointed," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It was made very clear that it was not an amnesty, it did not confer immunity."

Ms Villiers said that, out of 38 cases pending when the coalition came to office, 12 had received a letter.

"In hindsight, yes, it is a matter of great regret to me that, in particular, neither the First Minister [Peter Robinson] or the Justice Minister was briefed on this. Because, actually, what my predecessor, Owen Paterson, had decided to do was to recommend to Sinn Féin that, if new cases arose, it was not appropriate for the government to deal with them, because policing and justice had by then been devolved.

"At that point we should have informed the devolved authorities, but we left it to Sinn Féin if they wished to raise new cases to pass them on to the devolved authorities."

Collapse of Hyde Park bombing case shone light on policy

The Stormont Assembly was recalled for the additional sitting following a request by Mr Robinson at the height of this week's political crisis over the scheme.

When Mr Robinson made the announcement on Wednesday, shortly after he had threatened to resign over the issue, there were fears the future of the power-sharing executive would be on the line during the plenary session.

But those concerns receded last night when the Democratic Unionist leader withdrew his ultimatum in response to an announcement by British Prime Minister David Cameron that he was ordering a judge-led review of the matter.

Mr Robinson, whose resignation would have seen the institutions fold, and likely a snap Assembly election, claimed assurances he had received from the government about the letters had now rendered them effectively "worthless".

Sinn Féin has rejected this interpretation, claiming the letters still hold the same status and that they had never guaranteed immunity, rather they just informed an individual whether they were currently being sought by the UK authorities.

The republican party has also accused the DUP and other political rivals of "grandstanding" on the issue and claimed the threat of collapsing the Executive was a ruse to distract the public from the fact they all already knew about the process to deal with the on-the-runs.

Mr Robinson said the deluge of calls his party had received from victims and other members of the public demonstrated there was nothing "synthetic" about the crisis.

As well as commissioning the review, the government said it would be making clear to all those who had received a letter in the past that if evidence now existed, or emerged in the future, which linked them to an offence, they could be questioned or prosecuted.

Mr Robinson claimed that move represented a fundamental change to how the scheme had operated before.

"I think that makes it clear that they (the OTRs) have a fairly worthless piece of paper," he said.

Report due by end of May

The judge appointed by Mr Cameron will report by the end of May.

Last night, Sinn Féin Assembly member Alex Maskey described the review announced by Mr Cameron as "unnecessary".

"This announcement is a political fig leaf for the DUP to try and get them off the hook they jumped on to over the past few days," he said.

This morning, Mr Maskey insisted that the DUP was aware of the processes.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Maskey acknowledged that unionists may not have been aware of the specific function of the letters issued.

However, he said they were well aware of the process under way to resolve the issue of on-the-runs.

Mr Maskey said there was a raft of examples of evidence to that fact.

He said he did not believe it was a mistake not to make the existence of the letters public.

Mr Maskey said he did not expect that all of the individuals who had received these letters would be contacted should further evidence emerge during the course of the British government's review into the situation announced yesterday.

He said the British Attorney General had clarified that.