Cameron yields to DUP demands on OTR inquiry
Cameron yields to DUP demands on OTR inquiry


British Prime Minister David Cameron is to appoint a judge to investigate the operation of a scheme to deal with those ‘on-the-run’ from conflict-related prosecutions after Peter Robinson yesterday threatened to quit as the North’s First Minister.

Amid a hysterical reaction by unionists, the DUP leader said he was furious at the terms of the arrangement between Sinn Fein and the British government, by which 188 Sinn Fein supporters received letters from the PSNI stating that they faced no threat of prosecution.

Details of the scheme remain scant. The letters and understood to have been drafted in different forms, including at least one royal pardon.

Peter Robinson has repeatedly declared that the political process is “in crisis” and has threatened to resign, thereby collapsing the current Stormont Assembly and forcing new elections. The DUP leader suggested the terms of the scheme, which led to the acquittal this week of Donegal man John Downey, amounted to an effective amnesty for the Provisional IRA “behind the backs” of the Stormont administration.

Mr Downey was arrested last May in connection with an IRA attack on British soldiers in London in 1982, but an abuse of process application by his legal team succeeding in halting the trial before it was due to get underway. Their argument, backed up by testimony from Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly and former British Direct Ruler Peter Hain, cited a letter Mr Downey received in 2007 which indicated he faced no charges from events in either the Six Counties or, critically, in Britain.

PSNI police chief Matt Baggott and David Cameron have insisted the latter statement, effectively preventing Mr Downey’s prosecution in London, was “a mistake”. Although dozens of letters were processed hy his own government, the British Prime Minister distanced himself from the arrangement. He said he accepted calls for a “full, independent examination” of the scheme.

“I agree with the First Minister of Northern Ireland that, after the terrible error in the Downey case, it is right to get to the bottom of what happened,” Mr Cameron said.

“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 be given “full access to government files and officials” and will report by May, Mr Cameron said, with the findings being published.

Local and European elections are due to be held in the North on May 22nd.

There have been suggestions that the current outpouring of unionist anger may be merely a ruse to present more a hardline and populist position ahead of the elections. In particular, it has been pointed out that Peter Robinson and other unionist politicians must have been aware that prosecutions were only being pursued against those republicans perceived to be ‘dissidents’. In this regard, it has emerged that the PSNI briefed members of the North’s Policing Board, including the DUP, on elements of the scheme in 2010, albeit without mention of the letters or the recipients.

Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly said he requested and received a number of ‘letters of clarification’ on behalf of those concerned about their status. He estimated that some two dozen republicans had requested but had not received such letters. He said that unionists - including the First Minister Peter Robinson - must have known about the deal.

“It was very public and for the unionists to claim they knew nothing about it is false,” he said. “(Mr Robinson) knew about the OTR situation, he knew they were crucial to the peace process and the political process. He is foolish and needs to be careful as a political leader painting himself into a corner on the issue.”

He was backed by fellow Assembly member Alex Maskey who said the letters issued by the British government were “sought and given in good faith, and accepted in good faith”.

Mr Maskey said people had to come forward and ask if they are still being sought. The issue had been raised at talks after talks, he said, pointing out it had also been mentioned in the 2009 Eames-Bradley Report on dealing with the past.

Referring to Peter Robinson’s threat to quit over the issue, he commented: “Peter can resign if he wishes, but that is still not going to address the past.”

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister McGuinness added: “I think that the angst among unionist politicians is more centred around the common belief out there in society and in the media that they knew all about this.

“They may not have known about the letters, but they knew about the scheme and they knew that these people who were described as on-the-runs were being processed.

“I think that’s where the annoyance comes from.”

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