THE director of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland’s has warned IRA on-the-runs with amnesty letters: Don’t sleep easy in your beds.
Barra McGrory QC said the OTR letters saying suspects were not wanted by police are “virtually worthless”.
Mr McGrory told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is taking evidence at the Stormont Assembly how more than 200 people were told they were not wanted for paramilitary crimes, said the letters were “not an impediment to prosecution” if new evidence emerges.
He added he did not believe any leading member of Sinn Féin had got a letter.
The OTR letters scheme came to light in February when the trial of County Donegal man John Downey for the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed.
The prosecution was halted because Mr Downey had mistakenly received a letter telling him he was not wanted by the PSNI.
However, there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest from the Metropolitan Police over the Hyde Park bomb.
Mr McGrory told the committee that he had “no knowledge of Mr Downey’s existence” until a few days before the judgement in the halted trial was made public.
He said that that the letters were not an amnesty and those who had received them “ought not to be sleeping easy in their beds”.
He added that recent advances in DNA analysis was one example of how new evidence could emerge in some cases and lead to prosecution, despite the suspect having received a letter.
Mr McGrory said Mr Downey’s case was different because he had been sent letter in error.
He explained that the scheme was an “extraordinary” measure that had come about in 1999 as a result of high level political negotiations involving the government and Sinn Féin.
The DPP added that some of the letters were sent to people who, ordinarily, detectives would have liked to question about crimes, but the suspects were told they were not wanted by police because the decisions were made on an “evidential” rather than an “intelligence” basis.
“From a prosecutorial point of view, speaking as a prosecutor, the scheme is flawed in the sense that it submitted names to the prosecution service in respect of whom there was potentially evidence, on the basis that the police had no interest in those individuals when in fact in other circumstances they would have,” Mr McGrory said.
The DPP also confirmed that to date, there has not been a successful prosecution of any suspect in receipt of an On the Runs letter.
He was asked to provide a copy of the full list of names of the recipients to the committee and replied that he had “no objection in principal” but would need time to consider the legal implications.
In his previous role as a private solicitor, Mr McGrory acted on behalf of Sinn Féin on occasions and also met a senior police officer in charge of a specialist PSNI team set up to deal with the On the Runs issue.
He confirmed to the committee that while he was representing the party, he had passed a list of names of individuals to the UK authorities to be considered for the On the Runs scheme.
However, Mr McGrory said he personally had “no hand, act or part” in designing the scheme which he said had been devised by politicians in government, in negotiations with the Sinn Féin leadership.
He said that while he did provide some “advice” regarding the On the Runs scheme, he played a “minimal role” and had been acting as a “facilitating solicitor” on behalf of his client.
Mr McGrory added that although the On the Run letters were of limited legal value, at the time they were introduced they were “politically important obviously, to the prime minister and the leadership of Sinn Féin to move the (peace) process to the next stage”.
“Obviously, since the police at the time had engaged in the process of giving the letters, there was a certain amount of confidence in certain quarters that they were no longer being pursued. I think that confidence would now have abated,” the DPP added.
During the committee proceedings, he was described by the North Antrim MP Ian Paisley as a “poacher turned gamekeeper”.
Mr McGrory said it was not a term he recognised but “would take it as a compliment”.
He said that during his former career as a solicitor he had not only acted for Sinn Féin but also for former police officers and soldiers and people with no connection to the Troubles.
First Minister Peter Robinson told the committee the On the Runs letters had come “like a bolt out of the blue”.
Mr Robinson said the government had “deliberately deceived” the other political parties in Northern Ireland by introducing the secret scheme.
“The scheme was hatched in the full knowledge that victims could be denied the possibility of justice. It was inequitable, sectarian – a concession to republicans alone.
“It was deceitful and carried out behind the backs of two sets of unionist negotiators and involved consciously supplying false assurances and disingenuous answers to direct queries.”
The DUP leader dded that the letters must have “no legal authority” and must be declared “null and void”.
The PSNI has set up Operation Rapid to review the OTR letter scheme to see if those who received the letters are currently wanted because of new information coming to light.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, who acted as a go-between with the IRA leadership and the Labour Government, has refused to given evidence at the NI Affairs Committee.