Cameron orders judicial review into IRA immunity letters
David Cameron has ordered a review into secret police letters promising immunity to terrorist suspects, but said he does not want to unpick parts of the 1998 peace deal that introduced the scheme.
Speaking during his joint press conference with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Thursday, Cameron promised a judge-led inquiry, after Northern Ireland's first minister and Democratic Unionist party leader, Peter Robinson, claimed he had been kept in the dark about pardons for up to 187 republicans and threatened to resign over the issue.
As Stormont was thrown into political crisis, the prime minister said he wanted to get to the bottom of the "terrible error" that meant police wrongly gave immunity to John Downey, who was accused of involvement in the Hyde Park bombing.
However following Cameron's announcement of the review Robinson lifted his threat to resign saying: "I very much welcome the judge-led inquiry that he announced and I am happy with the terms of reference that have since been set out in the government statement."
The emergence of the letter assuring Downey he was no longer wanted caused his trial to collapse at the Old Bailey in London on Tuesday.
But Cameron on Thursday sounded tentative about the idea of withdrawing protection given by the letters or stopping it from happening again. His review is only into mistakes within the scheme and what happened in the Downey case, not the existence of the covert scheme. He said the last government had been forced to make difficult decisions in order to get a deal, adding: "As an incoming prime minister, I don't want to unpick all those difficult decisions.
"I agree with the first minister of Northern Ireland that after the terrible error of the Downey case it is right to get to the bottom of what happened. The case has already been referred to the police ombudsman but, as the first minister has said, we should have a full, independent examination of the whole operation of this scheme.
"So I can announce today that we will appoint an independent judge to produce a full public account of the operation of this administrative scheme to determine whether any other letters were sent in error."
The judge will report by the end of May and will be given full access to all files about the scheme.
Robinson has said he was "incandescent" that he was not told that fugitives wanted in connection with Troubles-related crimes – known as on-the-runs – could have been issued with backroom pardons following the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Former unionist leader and first minister Lord Trimble also said he knew nothing of the deals and accused the government of undermining the whole peace process.
But some doubt has been cast on their claims to know nothing, as Danny Morrison, former director of publicity, tweeted that the Downey letter was made public in May 2013.
Earlier, Nick Clegg suggested it would not be easy to stop such letters being issued, arguing "legacy" arrangements could not be casually disregarded.
Speaking on his radio show, the deputy prime minister said he had known about the letters for some months, even though Robinson claims to have only found out on Tuesday.
Clegg insisted the coalition had always been against letters being sent telling terrorist suspects they were not at risk of prosecution, even though reports suggest 38 have been issued since 2010.
"We all knew as a government, if you like, when we came into office in 2010," he told Sky News. "We knew this was a legacy issue which had been established by the previous government.
"My party and, indeed, the Conservative party have been on record as being very against the proposal by the previous Labour government, for instance, to legislate for a wider amnesty and we want to see the rule of law always be applied. People must be held to account for their actions under the rule of law and in the case of Mr Downey clearly a dreadful mistake was made by him receiving that letter."
Cameron ordered the review amid fears a resignation by Robinson would trigger the collapse of the devolved five-party coalition dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
The first minister has called for an emergency debate on the issue in the Northern Ireland assembly on Friday. He said he was consulting other parties about a motion in the Stormont parliament.
Robinson said: "We are not on the brink of a crisis – we are in a crisis." The scheme had created "a crisis of confidence that the people of Northern Ireland will have on the policing and judicial processes. And they are right to be angry."
The judge's decision to free Downey at the Old Bailey on Tuesday has resulted in the most dangerous political destabilisation at Stormont since devolution was restored in 2007.
Downey, from County Donegal, had been charged with the murders of four soldiers who died in the Hyde Park bomb in 1982, after his arrest at Gatwick airport last year. He strongly denied all the charges put to him and pointed out that he was a strong backer of the peace process.
The case against him collapsed after it emerged in court that he had a letter from 2007 that mistakenly suggested he was immune from prosecution over the Hyde Park atrocity.
Deputy first minister and Sinn Féin negotiator, Martin McGuinness, appealed for unionists to calm down over the controversy, saying: "No sensible person will thank anyone for threatening these institutions."
Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary, confirmed the coalition decided to continue with the scheme in 2010 and did not tell the first minister or justice minister in Belfast about the letters.
However, she denied they amounted to "immunity, exemption or amnesty from arrest".
"The letters made this clear," she said. "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."
She explained that on coming to office, Owen Paterson, her predecessor as Northern Ireland secretary, was made aware of a list of names submitted by Sinn Fein under an agreement they had reached to clarify the status of so-called "on the runs".
Under the scheme the police checked in each case whether sufficient evidence currently existed for the "on the runs" to be questioned, arrested or prosecuted if they returned to the UK. If those checks it was found that they were not wanted by the police and that there was no prospect of any prosecution, the individuals were informed of that fact by letter from a Northern Ireland Office official.
"It was on this basis that the current government in May 2010 agreed that the list of names submitted by Sinn Féin to the previous administration could continue to be checked," she said. "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."