THE judge who headed up an investigation into the ‘On The Runs’ scandal has found that letters to IRA terorist suspects were “not an amnesty”.
The review carried out by Lady Justice Hallett on the orders of Prime Minister David Cameron “significant systemic failures” in how it operated by both the PSNI and more largely the NIO.
The scheme was made public in February when the trial collapsed of Donegal Provo John Downey suspected of the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing in London.
He was wrongly told by the NIO through the PSNI that he was not wanted by any UK police force.
However, he was wanted by Scotland Yard over Hyde Park.
Lady Justice Hallett said in her report pubished today that the letter to him was the result of a “catastrophic mistake” by the PSNI.
The police had realised they had made a mistake, but the assurance to Downey was never withdrawn.
“Nothing in law or logic” explained their failure to rectify the error, Lady Justice Hallett said.
“The administrative scheme was kept ‘below the radar’ due to its political sensitivity, but it would be wrong to characterise the scheme as ‘secret’,” she said.
She added: “If there was a lack of clarity and openness, responsibility lies with the UK government.”
There was enough information in the public domain for anyone keeping a close eye on Northern Ireland affairs to have known there was such as scheme, she said.
The judge said she had “detected no sinister motive in the failure to notify the minister for justice, the first minister and the Policing Board of the scheme”.
“The hope seems to have been that the scheme could be brought quietly to a close without generating the kind of controversy we have seen in recent months.
“Whether that was a wise policy is for others to decide.”
The report also found that letters were issued in error to two other republican terror suspects.
Lady Justice Hallett also found:
The scheme was not designed, but evolved, which meant there was no overall policy nor responsibility and accountability for it
It lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards
When errors came to light, opportunities were missed to rectify them
DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson said it would be interesting to see “what happens next”.
In fact, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers told MPs at Westminster today that Lady Hallett had identified 35 cases of suspects which she believed the PSNI had applied the “wrong threshold” when deciding they were no longer wanted.
“I hope the PSNI will now review these cases quickly as identified by Lady Hallett.”
However, Ms Villiers refused to divulge the names of those OTRs who were told they were no longer wanted as it could “infringe their Article 2 rights” under the European Convention.
Mr Robinson added: “This scheme was wrong in principle and shambolic in practice. There were a series of errors that need to be rectified.
The PSNI is currently reviewing the scheme it codenamed Opertion Rapid.
Following publication of the report, Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “I want to reiterate PSNI’s apology for the additional pain the families have had to endure as a result the failure to secure justice for their loved ones.
“Police have an ongoing responsibility to review evidence, and as is always the case, where new evidence exists, we will investigate and present the information to the prosecuting authorities.
“This specific piece of review work is both time and resource intensive and will be conducted diligently over the coming years.”