On coming to office in May 2010 my predecessor was made aware of a list of names submitted by Sinn Fein to the previous government under an agreement they had reached to clarify the status of so-called ‘On the Runs’.
These were people living outside of the United Kingdom who believed that if they returned would be wanted by the police for questioning in connection with terrorist offences committed before the Belfast Agreement.
Under the scheme the police, and in some cases the Public Prosecution Service, checked in each case whether sufficient evidence currently existed for these individuals to be questioned, arrested or prosecuted if they returned to Northern Ireland or any other part of the United Kingdom.
If those checks found that they were not wanted by the police and that there was no prospect of any prosecution based on the evidence then available, the individuals were informed of that fact by letter from a Northern Ireland Office official.
The letters did not amount to immunity, exemption or amnesty from arrest. The letters made this clear.
That remains the case. No recipient of such a letter should be in any doubt that if evidence emerges in the future in connection with terrorist offences committed before the Belfast Agreement they will be liable for arrest and prosecution.
It was on this basis that the current government in May 2010 agreed that the list of names submitted by Sinn Fein to the previous administration could continue to be checked.
If at any time we had been presented with a scheme that in any way amounted to immunity, exemption or amnesty we would have stopped that scheme – consistent with our opposition to the previous government’s Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill in 2005.
We have always believed in the application of the rule of law and that where the evidential test is met of involvement in terrorism should be subject to due process – whether that person is in possession of a letter or would be eligible for early release under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.
We will take whatever steps that are necessary to make clear, to all recipients of letters arising from the administrative scheme, in a manner that will satisfy the Courts and public, that any letters issued cannot be relied upon to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence is now or later becomes available.
I should also make it clear that, to my knowledge, this government did not inform either the First Minister or the Northern Ireland Justice Minister of this scheme.