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'No more letters' for IRA fugitives
Five outstanding applications from on-the-run IRA suspects seeking letters assuring them they are not wanted by police will not be processed by the Government, the Northern Ireland Secretary has said.
While Theresa Villiers has already insisted the controversial scheme set up to deal with republicans wanting to enter the UK is at an end, there had been confusion about the status of the five cases that were still effectively in the system.
The deal struck by the previous Labour government and Sinn Fein saw names of individuals passed to the authorities to check whether they were being pursued by police. If officers were not looking for them, they were sent a so-called assurance letter stating that fact. Around 190 republicans received letters - 12 since the coalition came to power in 2010.
Ms Villiers today said that when the Northern Ireland Office ceased its involvement in the administrative process in 2012, no conclusion had been reached on five applications and they remained under review.
Last week the Democratic Unionists demanded that any consideration of those cases was halted immediately.
During a visit in Belfast, Ms Villiers insisted no letters would be sent to those five individuals.
"The NIO has no plans to take further action on those cases. My understanding is the (Stormont) Department of Justice wants nothing to do with the scheme, so as far as the Government is concerned this scheme is at an end," she said.
Ms Villiers added: "We are not going to be writing any further letters."
Sinn Fein accused the Conservative MP of showing "bad faith" in reneging on the agreement on on-the-runs (OTRs).
Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein MP for Newry and Armagh, said: "What her comments smack off is her complete lack of understanding of the peace process and the political viewpoints of republicans and nationalists, something which has been typical of her tenure in the North.
"Both the British and Irish governments signed up to deal with this anomaly at the Weston Park talks (political summit in 2001) and this current British Government adhered to it.
"To renege on this agreement between governments, following pressure from unionists, is a sign of bad faith."
Details about the letters emerged last week when the case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed.
John Downey, 62, from Donegal, denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London.
The case against him was ended because government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man. The collapse shone light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly unionists, reacting with fury, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.
The crisis brought the Stormont Executive to the verge of collapse with DUP First Minister Peter Robinson threatening to resign - an ultimatum he withdrew after UK Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry into the scheme.
Today Mr Robinson said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had to clarify whether they were still investigating cases potentially linked to individuals who had been sent letters.
"I think the one area, and it wasn't for the secretary of state to pick it up, that is still left to be dealt with is whether there are ongoing investigations into the cases where letters have been issued," he said.
The First Minister told the BBC: "That's a vital area because effectively without those ongoing investigations into those cases then largely it is immunity, the cases are closed, so I think we want that clarification from the PSNI."
Ulster Unionist Assembly Member Danny Kinahan has claimed he is aware of another case of a letter being sent in error.
Ms Villiers said she was not aware of another case but added the inquiry would seek to establish if Mr Kinahan's allegation was correct. She said the review would also consider what was done with the five outstanding applications.
The secretary of state reiterated her view that the letters never amounted to a "get out of jail free card" and were merely a statement of fact about an individual's status at one particular time - a status that could change if fresh evidence became available.
"I am determined to provide that clarity to make sure that people understand the nature of the letters and that no one believes they can rely on them as an immunity because that is not what they confer," she said.