On-the-run letters ‘of no legal value’

Northern Ireland’s chief prosecutor has said letters to on-the-run republicans telling them they are not wanted by police are of no value to perpetrators.

DPP Barra McGrory said the assurances were not an impediment to prosecution if new evidence emerges and described the government scheme as flawed.

He added that he did not believe any leading members of Sinn Féin had received the messages as part of a peace process system for telling people living outside the UK that they were not sought for conflict crimes.

The senior legal figure said: “Anyone who is in receipt of one of these letters ought not to be sleeping easy in their beds.”

Police are reviewing the cases of those who had received them and a judge is due to report back on the issue later this month.

The DPP told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs that if evidence was uncovered by police they should “consider that as potential prosecution and if it meets the evidential test then the individual will be prosecuted”.

He added: “I would argue as a prosecutor that they are of no value to them.”

The process for dealing with those fleeing justice sparked controversy; opponents branded it a grubby deal to win Sinn Féin backing, while supporters insisted it did not constitute an amnesty for murder but was a necessary compromise to support the peace process.

An agreement between Sinn Féin and the last Labour government saw around 200 letters sent to republicans on-the-run, informing them UK police were not actively seeking them — but not ruling out future prosecutions if new evidence became available.

The scheme was established following the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

The special arrangements disclosed followed the collapse of the Hyde Park bomb trial, which was stopped when it emerged that the man accused of murdering four soldiers in the 1982 IRA bombing had mistakenly received one of the letters. John Downey, from Donegal, denied the charges. Mr McGrory said Mr Downey had been sent a letter in error even though the Met was looking for him. He added that recent advances in DNA analysis showed how new evidence could emerge in some cases and lead to prosecution, despite the suspect having received a letter.

As a lawyer, Mr McGrory acted on behalf of Sinn Féin and former soldiers and police officers. He also met a senior police officer in charge of a PSNI team set up to deal with the issue.

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