Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Who authorised letters to "on the runs"?

The statement, in response to an urgent question, about the release of John Downey, exposed age-old divides on the opposition benches. The attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, steered a course between the extremes.

The only question Mr Grieve did not answer was: who authorised the procedure, by which suspects against whom there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, were informed of the fact? (The text of the letter is included in the written statement by the Northern Ireland minister, Theresa Villiers, reproduced on the Slugger O'Toole web-site.)

The point Mr Grieve tried to get across, which was wilfully or ignorantly misunderstood by most of his questioners, was that the letters were not amnesties. If further evidence were to come to light which made a prosecution possible, then the advice to the suspect would be withdrawn. The Downey letter was an exceptional case (there is a current inquiry as to how exceptional) in that the writer was unaware that there was strong evidence in Britain warranting a prosecution over Hyde Park. The point of law which enabled Downey to escape criminal prosecution on the current evidence did not preclude civil proceedings - i.e. Downey could be sued in the civil courts for damages. There were too many in the House today who wanted to open up the peace process again.

I wondered at first if Mr Grieve had been chivalrously defending former Labour NI ministers, including Peter Hain and Paul Murphy, who were still MPs. But it appears from the judgement and the Villiers statement that the "on the runs" letters scheme was devised by John Major's administration, though not put into operation until around 2000, under Labour.

I see that John Major's last Northern Ireland minister, Patrick Mayhew, was raised to the Lords on his retirement as a MP. Perhaps if the issue is debated in the upper chamber, he might be able to shed some light on the matter. Or perhaps Lord Mandelson, his successor-but-one (sadly, Mo Mowlam is no longer with us), may contribute.

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