THE Police Ombudsman has criticised the PSNI’s handling of the controversial ‘on-the-runs’ scheme.
Dr Michael Maguire said the judge in the case accepted it would have been an abuse of process to try Mr Downey on the charges, given that he had received a letter from the Northern Ireland Office saying he was not wanted by the police.
The judgment put into the public spotlight a Government scheme whereby more than 200 Republican paramilitary suspects – the so-called ‘On The Runs’ – had received letters informing them whether they were sought by police.
These letters had been provided by the NIO based on information provided by the Attorney General’s Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), which in turn had relied on information from the PSNI.
The PSNI referred the John Downey trial judgment to the Police Ombudsman’s Office for an independent investigation of the role of the police.
The Office also received complaints from members of the public.
The Police Ombudsman investigation considered the policing issues highlighted in the judgment, which covered the period between 2007 and 2009.
“The police involvement during the period was marked by a lack of clarity, structure and leadership, with disjointed communication between key officers.”
In February 2007, PSNI initiated a review of ‘persons circulated as ‘wanted’ by the PSNI in connection with terrorist related offences up to 10 April 1988.’ The exercise was given the name Operation Rapid.
The Police Ombudsman found that the PSNI at a senior level failed to comprehensively establish the objectives and parameters of the reviews they were carrying out.
Dr Maguire has said that while it was not improper for a police service to review the circumstances in which it regards people as ‘wanted,’ the process used lacked clarity:
“The Terms of Reference for the exercise is silent on how individuals were selected to be reviewed or the procedure by which the information from the review was to be communicated onwards to other parties.
“Nor could we find a satisfactory rationale as to why the police recommended a review of a large number of people previously reported on in recent years,” he said.
The Police Ombudsman report concludes that as a process for reviewing ‘serious offences including murder, the exercise was flawed:
“Perhaps the most serious and significant flaw was to apply a higher standard for considering whether someone should be arrested than that which is normally applied,” said Dr Maguire.
Investigators established that 36 people who had been previously assessed as ‘wanted’ were subsequently re-assessed under Operation Rapid as ‘not wanted.’
John Downey was one of those people.
In July 2004 police documentation recorded that Mr Downey was wanted for arrest and questioning in connection with a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland.
However, In May 2007 an Acting Detective Chief Inspector reported to his senior officer than Mr Downey was not wanted by the PSNI, but suggested that clarification be sought as to whether he was wanted by the Metropolitan Police.
The final report compiled by the police said Mr Downey was not wanted by the PSNI.
“It must be acknowledged that at no time did the PSNI record in writing that they were not aware John Downey was wanted by any other police service within the United Kingdom.
However their responses to subsequent enquiries from the NIO clearly gave rise to that assertion.” said Dr Maguire.
The PSNI Chief Constable has initiated a review of all those people considered under the Scheme in 2007.
The Government also commissioned a review, Chaired by Lady Justice Hallett, into the administrative process which had been agreed for the scheme.
The scheme is also the subject of an ongoing inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee at Westminster.
Following the Ombudsman’s report, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “In February 2014, the Police Service of Northern Ireland accepted full responsibility for its failings which lead to the collapse of the trial of John Downey.
“The PSNI referred the case to the office of the Police Ombudsman for an independent investigation into the role of police.
“The then Chief Constable Matt Baggott accepted that the failings of the police should not have happened and issued a full apology to the families of the victims and survivors of the Hyde Park atrocity.
“The PSNI Chief Constable has since initiated a review of all those people considered under the ‘On The Run’ scheme and this work is still ongoing.”