Two men and two women due to stand trial charged with Provisional IRA offences were dramatically cleared this week, after the prosecution said it offered no evidence against them.
As a result, Padraic Wilson, Seamus Finucane - the brother of murdered lawyer Pat Finucane - Briege Wright and Agnes McCrory, were all found not guilty.
All four were due to go on trial at a non-jury Diplock court accused of “arranging or assisting a meeting of three or more people, knowing that the meeting was to support a proscribed [illegal] organisation, namely the Provisional Irish Republican Army”.
All four had denied the charges, which concerned alleged meetings held by the Provisionals in the late 1990s and 2000.
The prosecution had argued that the charges should be left ‘on the books’. Mark Mulholland, defending, said in the case last month of his client Martin Edward Morris, the prosecution also offered no evidence against him on a charge of membership of the Provisional IRA.
“In the light of that decision, we say that the prosecution in this case should offer no evidence in the same terms.”
The prosecution then accepted that it was now not offering evidence against the four, as well as on 13 separate charges facing Mr Morris. As a result of the decision, the Belfast Recorder said it would enter not guilty verdicts against all five.
The decision comes amid a continuing controversy over the state of investigations into Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and other alleged former members of the Provisional IRA.
Five alleged IRA members who received one of 228 so-called ‘letters of comfort’ to inform them that they were not wanted for conflict-related prosecutions in the north, are now facing probes, PSNI chief Matt Baggott has said.
The existence of the letters became public in March, and inquiries into at least two inquiries are underway into the decision to issue them. In unusual comments to one such inquiry before a committee of the Westminster parliament, PSNI Assistant chief Drew Nelson this week described 95 republicans on the list as being “fairly notorious”.
Nelson said prosecutions could still be taken against those OTRs (‘on the runs’) who received such letters, he warned.
“Given the seriousness of the offences I would be surprised if we could not find a process whereby we could avoid abuse of process allegations being made against us,” he told MPs.
Meanwhile, in a related development, more than 350 royal pardons have been issued in the north of Ireland over the past 35 years, the British government revealed this week. It was not revealed how many were given to republicans, loyalists and/or state agents.
The true total could be significantly higher because officials said they ‘cannot find’ records of pardons for the years between 1987 and 1997. None of the Stormont parties commented on the matter.