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Former IRA members could face prosecution despite comfort letters

British Secretary of State to Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers has stated that the letters no longer serve as immunity from prosecution.

THE SECRETARY OF State for Northern Ireland has stated that members of the IRA in receipt of comfort letters are no longer immune from prosecution.

Speaking to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, a select committee of the House of Commons, Theresa Villiers MP stated that “those holding the letters should not rely on them”.

Villiers stated that the letters should be thought of as statements of facts and that “the Government no longer stands by these statement of facts”.

The letters, which were individually issued in the run up the the Good Friday Agreement, told suspects they were unlikely to be prosecuted unless new evidence against them came to light.

theresa villiers Secretary of State to Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers Source: parliamentlive.tv

Controversy was caused in February of this year when suspected Hyde Park bomber John Downey escaped prosecution due to being in possession of one of the comfort letters.

Letters were issued to 187 ‘on-the-runs’ due to a deal struck between Sinn Féin and the British Government.

Downey, from Donegal, had his case thrown out by a senior judge when it emerged that he was in possession of one of the letters. The judge in the case ruled that the letter amounted to an official assurance against prosecution despite being issued in error.

Responding to a question on whether a legal precedent had been set with the judgement on Downey, Villiers said:

The facts of the Downey case are specific to that case. There is no guarantee that an attempt to prosecute another letter holder would reach the same conclusion.

Responding to questioning from Alliance Party MP Naomi Long, the Secretary of State said that letter holders would be informed of the change through a written statement issued to Parliament.

Those in possession of the letters will not individually be informed of the change in Government stance.

Naomi Long Alliance MP Naomi Long Source: parliamentlive.tv

It was made clear that the names of those who had received the comfort letters would not be disclosed publicly.

Speaking in response to a question from leader of the SDLP Alasdair McDonnell over letters being incorrectly issued the Secretary of State said:

There is no doubt that at serious mistake was made in the PSNI and that was an important element of the result of the Downey case… if the scheme had been managed properly, the mistake might never have been made.

Read: Man accused of Hyde Park bombing cannot be prosecuted because of secret deal

Also: Peter Robinson threatens to leave Government over Hyde Park case

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