The PSNI chief constable was forced to apologise after the prosecution of Hyde Park bombing suspect John Downey collapsed due to a “monumental” blunder by his force.
The convicted IRA member from Co Donegal, received a “letter of assurance” from police in the North in 2007 when there was an outstanding warrant against him.
Despite regularly travelling to the UK and the North since then, last May Mr Downey was arrested at Gatwick Airport en route to Greece and charged.
He “strenuously” denied the murder of four British soldiers and causing an explosion.
Mr Justice Sweeney threw the case out after Mr Downey’s lawyer successfully argued at the 11th hour the defendant should not go on trial at the Old Bailey. Yesterday, the prosecution announced that it would not appeal against the decision.
At an earlier hearing, Henry Blaxland, defending, warned of the political ramifications in the North of pursuing a trial against Mr Downey in such circumstances, saying the false assurance he received was “not just negligent, it was downright reckless”.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Sweeney said there were “very particular circumstances” of the case.
The public interest in prosecution was “very significantly outweighed” by the public interest in ensuring that “executive misconduct does not disrepute”, and in “holding officials of the state to promises they have made in the full understanding of what is involved in the bargain”.
The legal wrangle raised questions with the Police Service of Northern Ireland which, the court heard, knew about the UK arrest warrant for Mr Downey but did nothing to correct the error of 2007.
Afterwards, relatives of the four soldiers said in a statement: “It is with great sadness and bitter disappointment that we have received the full and detailed judgment and that a trial will now not take place.
“This news has left us all feeling devastatingly let down, even more so when the monumental blunder behind this judgment lies at the feet of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”
PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott apologised to the families, saying: “I deeply regret these failings, which should not have happened.”
He said checks were under way on information processed by the force about other similar cases.
Hugh Orde, who was chief constable of the PSNI at the time of the error, said: “It is a matter of great personal regret that a crucial oversight was made by a senior officer which resulted in erroneous information being sent to Mr Downey by the Northern Ireland Office and thus prejudicing the current indictment.”
Announcing that the state would not appeal, prosecutor Brian Altman acknowledged the pain of victims’ families “who must live with the consequences of it daily, and with the memories of that dreadful event”.
On July 20, 1982, a car bomb left in South Carriage Drive killed Roy Bright, Dennis Daly, Simon Tipper and Jeffrey Young and injured other members of the Royal Household Cavalry as they rode through Hyde Park in central London to the changing of the guard.
The investigation into the bombing led police to Mr Downey, through fingerprints on parking tickets and a description given by witnesses of two men carrying out reconnaissance in the area before the attack.
An arrest warrant was issued, but it was decided not to seek Mr Downey’s extradition from the Republic in 1989, in part due to the lack of strong evidence against him, the court was told.
Then in 2007, Mr Downey received assurance he was not at risk of prosecution as part of a scheme run by the PSNI.
He was one of 187 “on the runs” to seek clarification from the authorities in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.
Speaking outside the High Court yesterday, Sinn Féin’s MP Francie Molloy welcomed the judge’s decision.
Mr Downey declined to comment.
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