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Northern Ireland

On the run letters were "unprecedented and flawed", but not unlawful

The Hallett Review finds that two terrorism suspects were given letters in error.

TWO TERRORISM SUSPECTS were given letters in error that told them the British authorities were not seeking to arrest them.

That is the finding of the Hallett Review into so called “on the run” (OTR) letters.

Justice Dame Heather Hallett was appointed by the Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice in March to conduct the review after the collapse of the prosecution of Downey.

A court in London granted an abuse of process application in the case against John Downey in February and the Crown Prosecution Service said it would not appeal the decision. The judge ruled that an official assurance – even though it was given in error – meant that the 62-year-old could not face trial.

Downey had been sent a letter of assurance – in error – which he relied on to travel to the UK.

The trial judge described the issuing of the letter as a “catastrophic error” and concluded that it would be an abuse of process to continue the trial.

The Hallett Review looked at the operation of the scheme between 2000 and 2014, when the Northern Ireland Secretary announced the end of the scheme.

The review also found that:

  • The scheme evolved as part of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
  • It was “unprecedented and flawed”, but was not unlawful and did not give terrorist suspects an ‘amnesty’
  • Only OTRs against those there was insufficient evidence to justify arrest or prosecution should have been assured that they could return to the UK
  • Prosecutors and successive Attorneys General continued to take independent decisions on whether the evidence against an OTR justified prosecution, throughout the lifetime of the scheme
  • The flaws in the scheme were “mostly systemic”
  • There was a lack of structure and strategy to the scheme as well as inadequate liaison between the Departments and organisations responsible. 
  • Under the scheme properly administered John Downey should not have been sent a letter of assurance by the Northern Ireland Office
  • The error that led to the sending of a letter of assurance to John Downey was the result of a mistake by the Police.
  • The ruling in John Downey’s case was made on its own facts and would not necessarily prevent the prosecution of others who have received letters of assurance
  • The review uncovered two more occasions where it appears a letter of assurance was sent as a result of errors
  • The British Government did not publicise the scheme, but nor did it deliberately obscure it
  • Of the 228 names put forward by Sinn Fein, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Prison Service, 156 people received letters of assurance that confirmed they were not wanted, another 31 were told they were ‘not wanted’ some other way, 23 were told they were wanted and 18 have not been told their status.
  • The Royal Prerogative of Mercy was not used to pardon any of the OTRs but it was used to remit the sentences of 13 convicted OTRs

Terese Villiers, the Northern Secretary, told the House of Commons that review was a learning experience.

“The Northern Ireland administration will not shirk its responsibility in learning from the mistakes that were made.”

She said that no more not wanted notifications were issued in recent years.

SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell called the Downey case a “sad, sad saga”. He said that the past “hung over us like an Alpine glacier” and called on Villiers to help Northern Ireland “honourably deal with the past”.

Read: Homecoming dance for Hyde Park bomb accused cancelled over “media circus”

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