The UK government has been challenged to immediately stop consideration of five active cases involving on-the-run IRA terror suspects who have asked for assurances they are not wanted by police.
A Stormont minister issued the demand during a fiery emergency meeting of the devolved legislature in Belfast, called to debate the continuing controversy over a deal the last Labour UK government struck with Sinn Féin that saw more than 180 individuals issued with letters making clear they could return to the UK because the authorities were not seeking them.
While the majority of the cases were dealt with under the last government, almost 40 outstanding applications were taken on by the coalition UK government when it assumed power in 2010.
Today it emerged that five cases apparently remain outstanding, with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) understood to be still deliberating on whether those applicants should receive a letter.
Addressing a packed chamber at the conclusion of an ill-tempered and rancorous debate at Parliament Buildings, Democratic Unionist Economy Minister Arlene Foster first directed a pointed message to Sinn Féin.
“They have always had a cavalier attitude to the rule of law but they need not underestimate our continuing determination to rebuild confidence and that must start, I have to say Mr Speaker, with the five cases we have learnt of this morning.”
Mrs Foster then delivered a stark ultimatum to the NIO regarding the cases.
“They must immediately go, they have to be stopped immediately – I think that will be a mark of how this issue goes forward and we will be asking that question of the Secretary of State (Theresa Villiers) very, very quickly.
“I make it very clear from this House that we are not just dealing with the past, as we have learnt this morning, we are also dealing with the here and now in relation to this system.”
Asked about the five cases, the NIO said it would not be commenting in detail on the OTRs scheme due to the forthcoming judge-led review of the system, which was announced by UK Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday.
A spokeswoman for the NIO said: “The review will produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the OTRs scheme. It is important now that we let this inquiry run its course.”
The five cases were brought to light by Stormont Justice Minister who said he had been informed of their existence by a “senior NIO official” this morning.
Details of 180-plus letters sent to OTRs emerged when the case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed.
John Downey, 62, from Donegal, denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London.
The case against him was ended because government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.
But the collapse shone light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland reacting with fury, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.