On the 21st February, Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that an abuse of process had taken place in the prosecution of John Downey for offences relating to the Hyde Park bombing which took place on 20th July 1982. Mr Downey was part of an administrative scheme set up by the previous government to deal with so-called“on-the-runs”, that is people who believed they might face questioning or arrest in connection with terrorist or other criminal offences committed prior to the 1998 political agreement if they returned to the United Kingdom.
When he was arrested on 19 May 2013, Mr Downey was in possession of a letter from a senior official in the Northern Ireland Office dated July 2007 that read as follows:
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been informed by the Attorney General that on the basis of the information currently available, there is no outstanding direction for prosecution in Northern Ireland, there are no warrants in existence nor are you wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charge by the police. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not aware of any interest in you from any other police force in the United Kingdom. If any other 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.
It has subsequently become clear that this letter contained an error. Mr Downey was in fact sought for arrest by the Metropolitan Police at that time for charges relating to the Hyde Park Bombing, in which four soldiers of the Blues and Royals carrying out ceremonial duties were murdered and seven horses were killed.
Tragically later that same day another bomb at Regent’s Park resulted in the murder of seven members of the Royal Green Jackets. The Government remains clear that these were terrible terrorist atrocities that had absolutely no justification.
The judge concluded that the error had been made by officers of the PSNI. The Northern Ireland Office had sought confirmation before sending the letter that the appropriate checks had been made. It was assured by the PSNI that they had been.
As has been made clear by the legal proceedings relating to Mr Downey, an administrative scheme to deal with so-called “on the runs” was in operation from around September 2000. It was devised by the previous government. The details were not fully set out to Parliament, though the scheme was referred to in July 2002 in the answer to a parliamentary question given by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid.
Following the failure of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill in 2005-06, the administrative scheme became the only mechanism for dealing with OTRs. Under the scheme inquiries from individuals wishing to establish if they were wanted for arrest over suspected terrorist activities were communicated, by Sinn Fein, through the Northern Ireland Office, to the Attorney-General, who then referred them to the prosecuting authorities and the police. The Government communicated back the response to Sinn Fein via a letter from the Northern Ireland Office.
On the information available to the police and prosecuting authorities at the time, individuals who were not sought for arrest were informed of this. They were also advised that should new information or evidence of wrongdoing come to light at any point in the future, then they would be subjected to normal criminal proceedings. There was, therefore, no immunity from possible future arrest.
The current government looked again at the scheme and decided that any future requests should be referred to the devolved authorities in Northern Ireland, in line with the devolution of policing and justice. The Northern Ireland Office subsequently dealt only with pending cases for which requests had been received prior to the general election.
Our records indicate that around 200 individuals were subject to the scheme. Of those, approximately three quarters were informed by letter delivered through a Sinn Fein representative, that at the time they received the letter, they were not sought for arrest, questioning or charge by police; but that if any new information came to light that this was subject to change.
This procedure clarified the positions of these individuals who were otherwise unsure whether they remained wanted for arrest. In the light of the recent court judgment, my department is working with the police and prosecuting authorities to check whether anyone sent a similar letter is wanted for an offence committed before the date of the letter. As policing and justice have been devolved issues in Northern Ireland since 2010, any further requests for the scheme, or clarifications on whether particular individuals remain wanted for arrest, should be directed to the PSNI and devolved prosecuting authorities.
The Government is looking carefully at the judgment of the court. It is right that time is taken to consider its full implications. The PSNI will wish to reflect on lessons learned from this case and the circumstances that led to the serious error which has occurred.
As has been stated on a number of occasions, this Government does not support an amnesty for people wanted by the police in connection with terrorist offences. We believe in upholding the rule of law. That is why both the Coalition parties strongly opposed the legislation introduced by the Labour Government in 2005 which would have introduced what was effectively an amnesty for so-called “on-the-runs”.