Northern Ireland set for IRA terror ‘amnesty’ spat

March 01, 2014 - 5:37:53 am
LONDON: Northern Ireland’s assembly was to hold an emergency debate over letters sent to on-the-run IRA terror suspects, which threatened to bring down the province’s administration.

The devolved legislature in Belfast has been recalled at the request of First Minister Peter Robinson, who threatened to quit over the affair.

Had he done so, the move would almost certainly have collapsed Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive and triggered a snap election.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government on Thursday averted Robinson’s resignation by announcing a judge-led investigation into the so-called ‘amnesty’ letters sent to suspected Irish Republican Army paramilitaries living outside UK jurisdiction.

A fuming Robinson claimed London had kept him in the dark about the letters.

The existence of the letters became public knowledge this week after one of them — erroneously sent — caused the collapse of the trial over a deadly 1982 IRA bombing in London.

After Cameron made his announcement, Robinson confirmed he would not be quitting, adding: “I hope we can put this episode behind us.”

About 200 fugitive republicans suspected of crimes during Northern Ireland’s violent past have received letters informing them that they will not face prosecution if they return to the United Kingdom, because there is not sufficient evidence to prosecute.

Robinson welcomed clarification from the British government that recipients of the letters could still face prosecution if new evidence did emerge about terror offences.

The row erupted on Tuesday when a London judge ruled that John Downey, a 62-year-old suspect in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing that killed four soldiers, should not be prosecuted for the attack. He cited the fact that Downey had received an official letter while he was on the run in 2007, assuring him he would not face prosecution if he re-entered the UK.

Cameron’s government did not appeal the decision. The prime minister  said the letter was a “dreadful mistake made by the Police Service of Northern Ireland” — and promised to examine the whole scheme.

Announcing a judge-led inquiry, Cameron said the probe would be given “full access to government files and officials” and would report back by the end of May. The findings would then be published.

The Hyde Park bombing ruling caused outrage in Northern Ireland, where most of the 3,500 killings during the so-called Troubles remain unresolved.