I beg to move,
That this House has considered the background to and implications of the High Court judgment on John Downey.
Let me put on record our thanks and gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee for tabling this important subject for debate in the House this afternoon. I also want to put on record the fact that the debate has been requested by all the parties from Northern Ireland represented in this House, including the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party, as well as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). Representations were made to the Backbench Business Committee by those parties and the hon. Lady, and also by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, so the debate has cross-party support. Following the Attorney-General’s statement in this House on 26 February, it is important that we have this opportunity to debate at more length and in more detail the background to and implications of the High Court judgment in the John Downey case.
It would be right and proper for me to begin by putting right at the forefront of this debate the names of the four soldiers who died in the Hyde park bombing on 20 July 1982. I pay tribute to the memories of Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young and Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright, who died in the horrific IRA bombing on that day. It was one of the most notorious incidents of the entire IRA campaign. It touched very, very many people and is to this day remembered by so many for the deaths of those soldiers, but also for the deaths of the horses that occurred, and the terrible images that were shown on our TV screens and in our newspapers.
We will obviously come on to debate in detail all the issues surrounding the administrative scheme for on-the-runs, the implications of the Downey judgment, the political fallout, and all that, but it is important to remember that at the heart of this case are families who have had visited upon them not only this terrible tragedy but the terrible iniquity of justice having been denied to them. That has been very eloquently, movingly and emotionally put by the families’ representatives. We all feel for those families today. Indeed, their hurt and anguish is also felt by very many other victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere across the United Kingdom. When they look at this judgment and see the revelations regarding the administrative scheme, the hurt they feel from the loss of their loved one is brought home to them all the more as they realise that there are not only people out there who negotiated what turned out to be a “get out of jail free” card scheme, but people in Government who were prepared to implement such a scheme behind the backs of the public and Parliament—a scheme that those victims knew nothing about.
The judgment in the John Downey case was revealed on 25 February. The court had actually ruled the previous Friday, but the judgment was not made public until, as I understand it, consideration had been given to a possibility of an appeal by the Attorney-General. He decided not to appeal the case, so it would be useful if the Secretary of State could give an indication, when she responds, of the reasons why no appeal was made against the judgment.
The news that Downey would not be prosecuted and that the prosecution would be stayed was bad enough in terms of the individual case, but what came as a real bombshell to the public and everybody concerned was the revelation of the administrative scheme for on-the-runs. As I have said, the fact of the matter is that the scheme was not the subject of any kind of parliamentary debate, discussion or scrutiny at any time over many years. It had no statutory or legal basis and there was no public awareness of it. I will come on in more detail to some of the allegations that have been flying about that people should have known about the scheme and that there was enough information in the public domain—as if it was good enough, in relation to a matter of such importance, to say that we should have all been able to put together the pieces of the jigsaw, instead of having a normal process, with a statement and a debate, through which we could properly consider all the matters.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for placing the people who are most important in this debate—the victims of this crime—at the centre of what he is saying. Specific allegations were made against the right hon. Gentleman and his current party leader in Jonathan Powell’s book, which claimed that they were fully aware of the OTR scheme and happy for it to go ahead, provided that the blame was laid at the door of David Trimble. Would the right hon. Gentleman like to comment on the record about that specific allegation, which has been repeated throughout?
I am very happy to take that on board and I will deal with it in detail when I come to that part of my speech. I have listened to a lot of the commentary and the only allegation out there about the Democratic Unionist party is one reference in one tiny section of one book. Interestingly enough, it was never mentioned in the memoirs of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). I will come on to it later, but what it refers to is not the on-the-runs administrative scheme, but the issue of whether the Government were going to introduce legislation. It came after the talks at Leeds castle. The Government intended to introduce legislation and we made it very clear that that was a matter for them, but that we would not sign up or subscribe to it and that we would oppose it in the House of Commons, as we did, and table amendments to it. It did not relate to the administrative on-the-runs scheme, which was done as a dirty deal behind the backs of everybody concerned. I will come on to the issue in more detail in due course.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for taking another intervention so quickly. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that the Downey judgment makes it perfectly clear that Mr Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, requested an invisible process to deal with on-the-runs, and that is precisely what he got—a deal in secret?
I can confirm that. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that it is revealed in the court papers that Gerry Adams said that
“it would be better if there was an invisible process for dealing with OTRs”.
Indeed, the day after that revelation was made, Gerry Kelly, who became, as it turns out, the postman—
He is described as many things in Northern Ireland—most famously, of course, as the Old Bailey bomber. This is the man who was given the letters by Government officials and others—we are yet to hear the precise details—and who then communicated their contents to the people concerned. The night after that was revealed, he said on “The Nolan Show” on television that Unionists were kept in the dark because if they had known there would have been a crisis, so Sinn Fein itself admits that Unionists were kept in the dark and that there was an invisible process. The attempts by some people to now say, “Well, everybody knew about it,” simply do not wash. Indeed, a colleague of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long)—he is her party leader—who just happens to be the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, with responsibility for the administration of justice and policing, has made it very clear that he knew nothing about it either. I will come on to that later. The claims that people knew about the scheme do not wash.
There was considerable shock at the revelations, at the fact that justice had been denied, at what people saw as the rule of law being undermined and at the behind-the-scenes nature of the scheme. There is still considerable anger in the Province about the way in which things have come out. Sinn Fein has alleged that it is some kind of synthetic anger, that this is an issue about which people should not be too concerned and that it is not really an issue at all because everybody knew about it. That simply does not wash either. The anger in the community—not just on the Unionist side, but across the board—is real and palpable. People feel that justice has been denied and that the scheme has been characterised by years of deceit and is, in effect, devoid of any kind of morality.
We have made it clear throughout that we opposed and continue to oppose any kind of amnesty. Indeed, I think there is consensus across the House that there should be no amnesty for past crimes and terrorism in Northern Ireland. When we raise the issue of amnesty, we do not do so in a narrow legal sense; we are clear that there should be a proper pursuit and interrogation of suspects, and questioning leading to prosecution where evidence is available. In other words, not only should there not be any kind of amnesty in law passed by this House; there should not be any kind of effective or de facto amnesty by the back door either. Although it is said that this is not an amnesty—I understand what has been said—the reality is that in the case of Downey, for him in his circumstances, it amounted to an amnesty. That is the reality.
We know from the police and others that some 228 people were considered under the scheme. When the Secretary of State speaks, I would be grateful if she could update the House on the precise number of people involved. Our understanding is that the scheme began in 2000-01 and that 174 letters had been issued by 2002. The scheme came to a stop for a while and a Bill to grant amnesty to OTRs was introduced in 2005, but ended up collapsing—it did not go anywhere because of strong opposition from so many people. Members of Sinn Fein were in favour of the Bill, but when they came under attack because it also applied to members of the security forces and others they decided that they wanted an approach based on an amnesty for terrorists and their people, but not for soldiers, police officers and others. It was a one-sided approach and on that basis the legislative approach collapsed.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm to the House exactly when the Bill was withdrawn—I believe it was in January 2006—and perhaps look at the sequence of events? Three days after his Christmas lunch, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, wrote a confidential letter to the president of Sinn Fein to say that he would ensure that the administrative scheme was expedited so that any remaining OTR cases were dealt with before he left office—presumably, within six months.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, because I do not now need to go through the next part of my speech. She has outlined the sequence of events immediately after the legislation was withdrawn, and she is absolutely correct. The administrative scheme was ramped up, and the police set up a special unit to deal with it and look at all the cases. When the coalition Government came into office in 2010, the scheme was continued. As we now know, 38 cases have been considered in the period since 2010.
As I have said, there were 228 cases in total, and I understand that 192 letters were issued. There are other statistics for the numbers that were returned, for the people who were arrested and for the people who were investigated. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State updated us on the precise details.
Was the right hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was to find out from the Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement earlier this week that in order to know how many letters had been issued and cases processed, Sinn Fein’s own records are now one of the sources of information? The Government now have to consult Sinn Fein to find out how many letters were issued by Government.
I was interested to read that statement, but nothing surprises me any more about this scheme, quite frankly. One advantage of the current array of investigations and inquiries is that, between them all, we will get to the bottom of all the facts, uncover exactly what has gone on and, I hope, get to a better place as we move forward.
In practical terms, if someone on the run is given an amnesty, the police would presumably take their name and photograph off wanted lists. I am slightly surprised that people did not realise that amnesties had been granted for nearly 200 people, because their names and photographs had presumably been taken off wanted lists. Does he have a view on that?
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of amnesty. As was borne out in the Downey judgment, in reality, someone in possession of a letter of comfort issued by whoever it was—again, the inquiries will no doubt probe who gave authority for or signed off the letters, as well as to whom they were transmitted, and so on and so forth—could use it in court as a shield against prosecution even if evidence existed, provided that the information that they were being pursued or that evidence existed had not been communicated to them. That is my understanding of the situation in relation to Downey. Effectively, because a mistake was made on the facts in the Downey case, he could use the letter as a shield against any further prosecution, and the prosecution was stayed. For him, it was an amnesty, and given the double jeopardy rule, he cannot now be prosecuted for the particular crimes relating to the Hyde park bombings. Of course, prosecution remains open for other crimes, and I hope that the prosecution authorities and the police are looking into that matter.
My party and others opposed any relief or amnesty, or any scheme that would allow on-the-runs to evade justice. That has been our consistent position for many years. We opposed the legislation when it came before this House in 2005. The recent suggestion by the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin, that there should be an amnesty as part of the Haass process has been rejected by us and others. As a party, we opposed the provisions of the Belfast agreement in relation to the early release of prisoners, whereby people who had been convicted by due process—some of them, on both sides of the community, had been convicted of the most heinous and horrible crimes of terrorism—were allowed to walk free from prison if they had served more than two years. We opposed that part of the Belfast agreement, while other parties, which opposed this scheme, supported it.
The point has of course been made—it is a fair one—that at least the early release scheme was known about and was in the public domain. It has even been described as a terrible betrayal of victims by the right hon. Member for Neath, who has said that he understands the hurt that it caused. It was at least open and out there, and people knew about it when they voted in the referendum in 1998.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the galling thing about the Downey case is that had the scheme not come to light—he has outlined it, and our and many people’s rejection of it—it would still be continuing to this very day?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He is absolutely right that had it not been for the revelations in the Downey case, we would still be in the dark about all this. The two-year release scheme was obnoxious, and it remains obnoxious because anyone convicted of a terrorism-related crime that took place before 1998 can still avail themselves of its provisions. If someone is now found who has evidence against them of an offence that occurred before 1998 and was related to terrorism in Northern Ireland, they can go to prison for at most two years. That continues to cause great offence in Northern Ireland, but at least that scheme was out in the public domain. It was debated in this House and debated publicly, and decisions were taken as a result. However, there was never such transparency in this scheme. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, we would still be in the dark if we had not had the Downey case.
We need to find out how this all happened—who knew and when they knew—and to examine the scheme’s legality. We also need to ensure that another Downey case never happens, and that such letters have no effect when it comes to being able to stay prosecutions.
When the details emerged, the Attorney-General made a statement in this House on 26 February, but it appeared to many people that that would be it. There was no indication in any statements made at the time that there would be any further consideration of the matter. Indeed, Ministers were on the radio at lunch time that day saying that, as far as they were concerned, that was the end of the matter and nothing more could be done.
As the House knows, the First Minister of Northern Ireland—my party leader, Peter Robinson—made it very clear that had he known about or been made aware of the scheme when the restoration of devolution was negotiated, we would not have been able to proceed with devolution on that basis. He said that the matter was of considerable concern, given that policing and justice has become a devolved matter, that it is now the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive, and that the Justice Minister is responsible for those matters. He said that given that the First Minister, the Justice Minister and the parties in Northern Ireland, apart from Sinn Fein, were not aware of the scheme, it needed to be addressed urgently. He made it very clear that there had to be a judge-led inquiry.
I welcome the fact that that inquiry was announced by the Prime Minister on 27 February. I welcome the fact that on that day, the Secretary of State also issued a statement, which said:
“We will take whatever steps are necessary to make clear…in a manner that will satisfy the courts…that any letters issued cannot be relied upon to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence becomes available now or later.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 39WS.]
I welcome the fact that Lady Justice Hallett has been appointed. Her terms of reference are in the public domain. The intention is that she should report by the end of May.
Some people in Northern Ireland were critical of the appointment of the judge-led inquiry. Some of those people had nothing to offer other than base political point scoring and have not contributed anything towards getting to the bottom of these matters. We were very keen that the inquiry should not be dragged out over a long period, as we have seen with so many inquiries that relate to Northern Ireland matters, and that it should not lead to a panoply of lawyers trooping in and out, extending the process so that we did not get an outcome for months, if not years. I therefore welcome the fact that it will be a short, sharp, judge-led inquiry that will be able to examine the papers and deal with many of the issues.
I welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, has taken steps to set up an inquiry. The Justice Committee in Northern Ireland, under the chairmanship of my friend Paul Givan, the Assembly Member for Lagan Valley, has also initiated an inquiry. It had its first session on 25 March, at which the permanent secretary at the Department of Justice appeared. Interestingly, the permanent secretary, who is a former official in the Northern Ireland Office, admitted to having knowledge of the secret OTR scheme while in that role, but apparently he did not feel that it was necessary to inform the Justice Minister of it when he became permanent secretary at the Department. That raises questions as well, but it is for the Justice Committee in Northern Ireland to pursue them.
As a former Minister, the right hon. Gentleman will know that a civil servant is not at liberty to give information about the role that they played as a civil servant for one Minister to a new Government taking office. Although it may seem bizarre and frustrating that that knowledge was available in the Department of Justice, it would have been thoroughly inappropriate and, in fact, illegal under the civil service code for the permanent secretary to have shared it with anyone.
I understand that completely. We are all aware of the rules about disclosure in relation to previous Ministers and all the rest of it. That is one reason why the judge-led inquiry is so significant and important. The judge will be able to inquire into the papers and have before her the various documents, even if they relate to previous Administrations. That matter is also important for the other inquiries, because we must get to the bottom of all the facts and of who knew what and when.
The point made by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) reinforces the fact that this arrangement was, in effect, a secret. Civil servants are quite free to comment on issues that past Governments have dealt with and that they were engaged in when they are matters of public policy and when it is sensible for the understanding of the current Minister to have the benefit of that background information. The very fact that the civil servant felt so precious about this matter underscores the fact that it was a secret arrangement.
The hon. Gentleman has put it very well. Documentation and papers relating to the civil servant’s time in the Northern Ireland Office would not be made available to the current Minister of Justice, but it beggars belief that no reference to the scheme could be made anywhere at all by any official. As the hon. Gentleman put it so well, it was because there was a preciousness about ensuring that the secrecy of the deal was maintained.
I am glad that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is also reviewing the process that led to the issuing of the letters. A team of 16 detectives has been assigned to the review. It will investigate the circumstances of each of those who received a letter. It will also re-examine the original checks that were carried out by the specialist PSNI team to which I referred earlier, which led to the Public Prosecution Service being told that none of the individuals was wanted. The police have made it clear that investigations into killings and other incidents may be reopened if mistakes or new evidence are uncovered.
It is important to note that all the inquiries and investigations that are under way are complementary. They will work together. Some of them will concentrate on the more political aspects and ramifications of this dirty deal; some of them will consider the legal side of it and look at the documentation and papers; and some of them, no doubt including the Justice Committee, will want to probe what the status of the scheme was post-devolution, when policing and justice were devolved. The police will look at the matter in the terms that I have just indicated. All the inquiries and investigations are complementary, all of them are important and all of them must get to the truth. They must find a way forward that implements what the Secretary of State indicated in her statement in February after this was announced, which is that there can be no bar on the questioning, prosecution and investigation of cases, and that they must be brought to court.
I want to talk briefly about how this whole issue has been handled in respect of informing Members of Parliament and the public. I raised a point of order on 5 March, in which I said that
“examination of the parliamentary record going back over a number of years indicates that there were occasions on which the House may have been misled by ministerial statements, whether oral or written.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2014; Vol. 576, c. 905.]
I know that it is not the responsibility of current Ministers to speak for previous Ministers, but it is important that we hear in this House, on the record, from those previous Ministers whether they stand over the statements that they made in this House. When one reads those statements now, it is very clear that there was certainly an economy in the truthfulness of what was said.
I refer, for instance, to the question that was asked on 11 October 2006 by Peter Robinson to the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Neath:
“Although we welcome the earlier answer from the Minister of State that no legislation is to be brought before the House, will the Secretary of State reassure the House…that no other procedure will be used to allow on-the-run terrorists to return?”
The then Secretary of State answered:
“There is no other procedure.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 290.]
The hon. Member for North Down subsequently asked, on 1 March 2007,
“what measures the Government are considering to deal with ‘on the runs’ other than further legislation or an amnesty.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1462W.]
The right hon. Member for Neath replied, “None.”
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene on that point. He has quoted a reply that was given to me by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). It is important to note the date of that reply, which was at the beginning of March 2007. We know from the Downey judgment that the first meeting of Operation Rapid within the PSNI was chaired by Norman Baxter on 7 February 2007. It is of considerable regret that the right hon. Member for Neath is not here today. However, may I say in his defence that, quite properly, he attended the funeral of his colleague and dear friend Tony Benn, and that he has a family commitment today?
Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman resumes, may I gently point out to him that he has been speaking for 35 minutes and there are 14 Members who wish to speak in this debate? I do not think they would appreciate a time limit, which may be necessary if he goes on for much longer.
I shall be brief. Given the gravity of the situation and the need to ensure that these matters are properly aired, I do want to give time to other hon. Members to contribute.
The hon. Member for North Down has rightly pointed to the reasons for the absence of the right hon. Member for Neath. We understand also that the Minister of State has another commitment. [Interruption.] I am glad to see that he is now present, although he was not here for the start of the debate.
All sorts of allegations are floating about and it is said that everybody should have known about the scheme. We have dealt with the Sinn Fein comments. We know about their claims that there needed to be invisibility and that the scheme needed to be hidden in case there was a crisis. We have had references to the Eames-Bradley report, but examination of it does not bear out the allegation that the scheme was known. We have seen allegations about the Policing Board. When one examines the record—I will not go into the detail—again, that is disproven.
On the Powell book, I have dealt with that matter clearly. This was not about the administrative scheme. It was about the legislation that was being brought forward, and it is completely wrong to allege that the DUP was somehow part of any kind of information sharing in relation to the scheme. I make no allegation that other politicians in Northern Ireland knew about the scheme either.
Would it be right to say that this scheme was already in train at the point when those allegations were made? The scheme was already operating behind everyone’s back, and that was almost being redressed by saying that people had knowledge that they did not have.
The hon. Lady is right. The consensus that exists in relation to the approach by all the parties in Northern Ireland generally and many other commentators bears out the fact that this matter was withheld not just from the public, but from the political classes in Northern Ireland and those who were dealing with negotiations at that time.
I close by saying that there are issues about the authority for the continuation of the scheme after 2010 when these matters were devolved, and that will have to be looked at by the judicial inquiry. There are also grave implications for the continuation of the Haass process, although I do not think it should be called the Haass process any more as Mr Haass has gone, not to return. On the talks about the past and about parades and flags, there is no doubt that talks and discussions were continuing, negotiations were taking place, and one party at the table was aware of the scheme that provided an effective amnesty for certain individuals. Not to have it revealed, for others not to know anything about it, was a grave betrayal of trust.
There are those who would say that the answer to all this is to throw everything up in the air at Stormont, get rid of devolution and get back to direct rule. Well, this scheme illustrates what happens when politicians in Northern Ireland do not have their hand on the tiller.
I speak to some of our Unionist friends back home, who urge people to tear down what has been built up, who say that as a result of this we should all get out of Stormont and bring the whole thing down. But when we look at the issue of the iniquitous, immoral and deceitful on-the-runs scheme, when we look at the issues of the Parades Commission and the flying of the Union flag, what do we find they all have in common? They are the product of direct rule. They are the product of a situation where Unionists—I say this as a party political point—did not have influence or power in relation to that decision making. It would be a travesty to suggest that the way to correct the ills of this scheme is to tear down devolution at Stormont.
It is important that the inquiries all take their course. We eagerly await their outcome. Let us put it on record that as far as this party is concerned, if these matters are not adequately and properly dealt with in the way the Secretary of State outlined in her statement on 27 February, we will have to return to the issue again. This is not going to go away.
I apologise to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for missing the first few minutes of his speech. Thankfully, he spoke for half an hour so I was able to hear most of it.
I was part of the team that approached the Backbench Business Committee to ask for this debate. Up to that point we had had only an hour of discussion in the House of Commons when I tabled the urgent question on 26 February. This debate is useful because an urgent question does not allow the House full discussion.
Since 2010 the Select Committee has tended to concentrate on economic issues. We have looked at corporation tax, air passenger duty, fuel laundering and smuggling and the amounts of money being lost. We have touched on the armed forces covenant, and we are coming to the end of an inquiry into the structure of banking in Northern Ireland. In other words, we have tried to help to regenerate the economy in Northern Ireland, believing that to be very important for the prosperity of the people who live there, and with a view to attempting to cement the peace that has been achieved over the past 16 years or so. I am sure Committee members would have been happy to take that policy forward towards the next general election. However, that changed on 25 February.
Speaking for myself, I was not aware of any such scheme. I was obviously aware that the John Downey case was being considered as I got a telephone call that day explaining the judgment and letting me know the background to it. It came as a complete surprise to me that there was any such thing as an administrative scheme. It was a big surprise because in 2005 through to January 2006 I led for the Conservative party on the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, which attempted to grant an amnesty across the board. It was the realisation that that amnesty went across the board that caused Sinn Fein to stop supporting the Bill, and the Bill was subsequently withdrawn. I received a telephone from the then Minister of State, who asked to see me. He informed me that the Government were, in his words, pulling the Bill. There was no support for it and it was not going to happen.
I was not aware at that point or earlier or up to 25 February that there was any other way of dealing with the so-called on-the-runs. The Select Committee found itself in a changed position after 25 February. I have never known the members of that Committee to be so exercised over any issue as they have been over this, which has persuaded us to launch an inquiry into the background to this scheme and everything connected with it, despite the fact that there is a judge-led inquiry appointed by the Government, which we welcome, and an inquiry is being held by the Justice Committee in the Assembly, the leader of which I met just the other day. Both inquiries are welcome, and we will probably concentrate on different areas.
We start with the case itself and a stay being put on the case. We have taken legal advice on the matter. I am advised that the Government cannot appeal a stay. That was the advice that I received just yesterday. I would be glad to hear the Secretary of State’s response to that because it seems an extraordinary judgment that possession of a letter can take on greater importance than a murder charge. I make no suggestion as to whether Mr Downey is guilty or innocent. That is not the role of a politician and I do not have the facts to hand. But a murder charge was made—in fact, a charge of multiple murder and injury—yet possession of a letter appeared to assume greater importance than that charge. I find that very surprising indeed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is a valuable member of the Select Committee and I am grateful to him for his support on this and many other issues. The point he makes is correct. Not being a lawyer myself, I cannot make a judgment on whether that is normal. My suggestion is that perhaps it is not normal. I understood courts always to look at the facts before them, but in this case the court seems to have relied on this letter, which concentrated on the fact that the PSNI did not want to question Mr Downey. It said only that in the PSNI’s belief no other police force in the United Kingdom wanted to question him—it was not a categorical assurance. That letter, weak and flimsy though it may sound, seems to have taken on a greater importance because of the political process. I would be the first to say that it is very important that we do not unravel the peace process or undo the enormous achievements in Northern Ireland, but the rule of law applies here, as well as the separation of powers between the Executive, Parliament and the courts, which has to be observed. I suggest that all the inquiries have that as the central motivation behind their opening.
I may be able to help my hon. Friend. The judgment in the Downey case speaks for itself, and one needs to read it. It is very straightforward in its language about the terms of what had happened and the impact that the judge felt it had on the fairness of any prosecutorial process. Beyond that, to pick up a point that was raised earlier, that judgment was considered with great care by the Crown Prosecution Service, using independent lawyers’ advice, and the CPS was clear that it was not possible to appeal against it. CPS staff came and explained that to me and, having listened carefully to what they had to say, I shared their view.
I am a little confused. I thought that the reason for the lack of an appeal was that there was no realistic prospect of success, not that there was no process by which an appeal could be made. Is the position that there was no possibility of an appeal for technical reasons, or is it that the appeal had no chance of being successful?
The decision of the judge was capable of being appealed. I hope I made that clear when I made my statement in February. It was possible to appeal against the decision but, for the reasons I have just given, the view was taken that it had no reasonable prospect of success.
I am again grateful to the Attorney-General for that clarification, although it is in some contradiction to the advice I received from Queen’s counsel yesterday. Perhaps this matter could be taken up further, but at this stage it is probably better to move on from the case.
Given that this is not just about the judicial process but about the political confidence that people can have in assurances that were given in this House, and whether there was an attempt not only by the last Administration but by the current one to help terrorists guilty of crimes escape the consequences, does the hon. Gentleman agree that—regardless of how slim the chances were of a successful appeal in judicial terms—politically the right thing to do would have been to appeal?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is why the conflicting advice we have received has to be explored further. If a stay cannot be appealed, it cannot be appealed, but if—as the Attorney-General suggests—the issue is that there is no prospect of overturning the judgment, my view as a non-lawyer is that we should consider an appeal. It is extraordinary that a letter, which appears to be ambiguously worded, can take on greater importance than a charge of multiple murder. I do not know whether it is unique, but it is extremely unusual.
I rise again only to say that the decisions of the Crown Prosecution Service cannot be taken on a political basis. Indeed, insofar as I exercise functions in relation to the administration of justice, I have to ensure that those are not taken on a party-political or other political basis. It might often be convenient politically to do something, but if it is not justified on an objective consideration, it would be quite improper to do it.
I do not think that anyone would disagree with what the Attorney-General has just said. The problem is that the judgment in the Downey case appears to have taken the political situation into account, and that is what concerns everyone. Royal pardons appear to have been given, but I do not know what they were given for or which crimes were being overlooked. If that was not done on a political basis, I do not know what constitutes a political basis. The point that we are trying to make is that such decisions should be made on a legal basis, not a political basis.
The one good aspect is that the judgment has blown open the whole issue and drawn attention to what has been going on. The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill was introduced in 2005, presumably because it was felt necessary to put the scheme on to a statutory basis, to give it a public airing or some respectability. It now seems that the scheme had been running since 1999, but it was six years before the Bill was introduced. The Bill was dropped, but the scheme continued. Was the scheme legitimate for all that time? If it was, why the need for the Bill?
As the right hon. Member for Belfast North said, the 1998 legislation—some of which I also voted against, for all sorts of reasons—addressed very unpalatable issues, but at least we could debate and vote on them publicly.
My hon. Friend, who is a valuable member of the Select Committee, points out that a referendum was held on that legislation. That was completely in the open, so why was this scheme not made public? We will need to look at that issue.
It is claimed that the letters were just assurances that no one was being looked at by the PSNI; it was just an administrative scheme and simply a matter of informing people that they were not wanted. But we are also told that the scheme was crucial to the peace process and if it had not been done, the whole peace process would have somehow unravelled. Both those statements cannot be correct. If it was just a matter of clearing the police computer and moving things on, it cannot have been crucial to the peace process.
Something that puzzles me relates to whether the crime was committed in Northern Ireland or in London. We know the answer: it was committed in Hyde park, which is the responsibility of the Metropolitan police. I do not understand how the PSNI can issue an immunity letter in that case, because it suggests that the Metropolitan police do not have any responsibility.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not want to go back to the Downey case in too much detail, because I am trying to make progress, but it was an extraordinary judgment.
I also question who received these letters: who are the on-the-runs? If a completely innocent person received a letter saying that they were not wanted by the police, that would be extraordinary. It does not happen; there has to be a reason why people were on the run. What exactly does “on the run” mean? What were they suspected of doing? What did they fear the police thought they might have done to put their names forward? Why did they need confirmation that they were not wanted? That is central to the whole debate.
I am also concerned about the number of letters that appear to have been sent out. I am not quite sure of the exact figures, but those I have suggest that 221 letters were sent out, with 10 being provided by the Prison Service, which I find a little confusing, and four by the Government of the Republic of Ireland, which I find a bit worrying. That is according to the statement made by the Secretary of State a couple of days ago. We are told that that does not amount to an amnesty, but what about the royal pardons? Again, the advice I have received is that those are normally issued following a miscarriage of justice, not to prevent a case from being brought against a person in the first place, and that prompts the question of what the pardons were issued for.
The timing of this issue is unfortunate, as I said during the urgent question. As we speak, the PSNI is advertising for people to come forward as witnesses to the Bloody Sunday killings of 1972.
Will the Committee’s inquiry also examine what seems to be a contradiction in that the final sentence of a written statement of 25 March states:
“If the Government had been presented with such a scheme on coming to office, we would have stopped it.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 16WS.]
That prompts the question of why the letters continued to be issued.
We will certainly ask about that, and I do not know why it was not devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly when a Justice Minister was in place—a Justice Minister who confirmed to me and other members of the Committee that he did not know anything about the scheme. I do not know why the matter was not devolved, but it is something we will consider.
As I was saying, the PSNI is looking for people to come forward as witnesses to the Bloody Sunday killings. Let me say straightaway that I do not believe in any amnesties. If republicans have committed crimes they should be charged, if loyalists have committed crimes they should be charged, and if members of the security forces have committed crimes they should be charged. This seems to be a one-sided scheme. In 2005 the Government tried to open it up to everybody, but it was rejected by all parties and withdrawn because we do not believe in amnesties. It seems, however, that there is a scheme for certain members of the community but not for others, which cannot be right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) is quite right and the Committee will certainly consider why this issue was not devolved following the devolution of policing and justice in April 2010. We also published the terms of reference on 11 March. They are quite comprehensive and we want to carry out a full and deep inquiry. We do not want it to run on for ever, but we will certainly do it properly and interview a range of people including past and present Secretaries of State, Ministers, police officers, relevant civil servants, and others. The first session will be held next week with former senior police officers. Yesterday we appointed two eminent barristers—I cannot name them at the moment—including a Queen’s counsel, to become special advisers to the Committee during this inquiry.
It is important to recognise the progress made in Northern Ireland over the past 16 years, but there are no amnesties and no excuse for violence. The rule of law must be upheld by all concerned, so although I regret the need to delve into the past once again, it is sometimes necessary to do so in order to secure the future.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate, and I apologise to the House and to other hon. Members, particularly the Secretary of State, for the fact that I will not be able to remain in the Chamber for the whole debate owing to circumstances beyond my control. I am also grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time to consider this issue today. It is a sensitive and serious matter, not just from a Northern Ireland perspective, but for the UK as a whole, given the way in which this scheme appears to have circumvented the will of Parliament and allowed others to circumvent due process under the law.
Let me put my remarks into context by setting out a number of points. Like the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), I agree that the centrality of victims in issues of justice and dealing with the past must be reflected, recognised and given respect. It is one thing to be honest with victims in Northern Ireland and tell them that they may never receive justice because of the passage of time or a lack of evidence, but it is another thing if, where people have the opportunity to pursue justice, it is denied to them, either by a process that is concocted as this one was, or by any other mechanism that seeks to prevent people from pursuing justice. Like others who have already spoken, I would oppose—as would my party—any form of amnesty.
When discussing this issue it is important that we do not seek to diminish in any way the progress that has been possible as a result of the wider peace process in Northern Ireland. All Members of the House, I think, value the progress that has been made over the past 15 years, and all want to see it furthered rather than regressed. However, it ought not to be peace at any price, and there must be some sense of moral foundation on which we move forward as a society. I believe that this process has failed to engender a sense of confidence among the Northern Ireland public that a moral compass was operating in the Northern Ireland Office at the time these issues were dealt with.
I recognise that all peace processes contain issues of transitional justice, where normal justice arrangements are in some way changed or altered to address specific circumstances. We accepted that in Northern Ireland—to varying degrees, I must say—and that it was done on a particular basis. However painful the early release schemes, they were endorsed by the public directly in the Good Friday agreement referendum. There were other cases of transitional justice where elected representatives endorsed a process. For example, there was limited immunity in the case of decommissioning, and because of the wider benefit of recovering those weapons it was accepted that they would not then be used for forensic testing in order to incriminate those who handed them over willingly. There was an acceptance by public representatives, on behalf of their constituents, that that was a fair, right and just thing to do. Equally, for the recovery of the remains of the disappeared, limited immunity was provided for those who gave information so that they would not incriminate themselves in doing so. The greater good being served was that those families who had suffered the horrendous torture of not knowing the final location of the remains of their families would perhaps be able to get some truth.
Those cases are distinct from this one, however, because they were either considered here openly in Parliament, with the acquiescence or at least the full knowledge of the political representatives who sat here, or endorsed in the Good Friday agreement by a public referendum. The issue we are discussing did not flow from the Good Friday agreement, and no amount of repetition will change that.
I remember voting for the Good Friday agreement, and how difficult it was to do so in the light of the early release scheme. It was one of the hardest things for me to swallow, as somebody who believes in the rule of law. I voted for that agreement, however, because I believed that it was in the greater good, as did the majority of people in Northern Ireland. No reference to the on-the-runs or any other issue of this nature was put to the people of Northern Ireland, and neither were they given the option to vote on that issue. For others to suggest that this scheme was a natural flow from the Good Friday agreement is absolutely false. It was not endorsed by the public or the representatives. More than that, when the tidy up was brought in to try to put this issue on some kind of statutory footing, Parliament rejected the attempt to extend the amnesty, which we now know has been given to those who received these letters, to other categories of person who may have been seeking similar comfort. Parliament rejected that, yet it went ahead.
The allegation is that, without the letters, the peace process would not have survived. No one denies that the issue of on-the-runs did not exist. The question was how it could be addressed in a manner that would keep the principles and foundations of justice intact. At that time, the Alliance party proposed a tribunal process, in which people would have their cases reinvestigated and tried in open court, but they would have to present themselves in person to face justice and their alleged victims to do so. My party has been consistent that no widespread amnesty, such as that floated by the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, is an acceptable way forward. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. I go further and say that two wrongs will not make a right. The answer in this case is not to say, “Let us universally wipe the slate clean”, but to resolve it so that justice can be done fairly and squarely for everyone in Northern Ireland.
Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to put on record her candid assessment of the damage done to public confidence in the prosecution service and—I say this with great sadness—in the Police Service of Northern Ireland by the ramifications and revelations of the Downey case?
I am more than happy to do so.
The timing is significant. Over recent years, there has been a perception in the loyalist community in particular that justice acts in a differential way, and not to their benefit. I have not shared that perception, but I am hugely aggrieved that, as a result of the case, it has been compounded, because no loyalists and no members of the security service had access to the scheme. Only members of Sinn Fein or people who came through Sinn Fein had access to the scheme. In fact, there are complaints from other republicans who fell out of favour with the Sinn Fein leadership that even they were not able to access the scheme.
Therefore, justice in Northern Ireland was acting in a partial way during that process, which has undermined public confidence and further damaged people’s respect for the PSNI by implication—the PSNI was asked to do that job by the Government of the day, and did as it was asked to do, as is its duty, but its role in the process has tainted the public view of it. It has been incredibly damaging, and a huge amount of work will need to be done as a result to recover people’s confidence in their politicians, in the justice system and in the wider peace process.
That is why, from the beginning of the negotiations, the Alliance party was clear that side dealing and secret dealing would end up being the undoing of the peace process, not its underpinning, because the truth will out, and when it does, the ramifications, having been kept secret in the first place, are as significant as the deal originally done. It is better to face the truth and deal with the consequences of failure there and then than it is to continue a charade and a false perception of progress, which is shaken to its core when such things later emerge. I feel very strongly that the case has undermined people’s confidence in the process, and that a lot of work needs to be done to restore it.
On the inquiries, other hon. Members have outlined the variety of inquiries taking place in the Assembly, the Policing Board and the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but I want briefly to consider the inquiry being undertaken by Lady Justice Hallett. That inquiry was always to be narrowly focused and swift, which is to be welcomed. However, I am slightly concerned by the increasingly narrow focus of the inquiry. We would be well advised to keep that under a watching brief. In letters issued to Lord Thomas by Julian King, director general of the Northern Ireland Office, Mr King appears to very narrowly circumscribe the role of Lady Justice Hallett and how far her investigations can go. For example, Mr King has advised that she will not need to look at every individual case as part of her inquiry. For me, that raises questions about who will do the sampling of cases she will look at and on what basis the sampling will take place. How will we ensure that she has the opportunity to look at the different wording in the letters that were issued over the period? The wording did change. Some people received letters saying that unless new evidence was discovered, they would not be requested for trial, but others were told that they would not be requested unless new cases were discovered, which is entirely different in terms of importance. How will we know that every variety of letter and text will be thoroughly investigated unless each case is looked at in detail? Indeed, without reviewing each case, how can we know whether there are errors in other individual letters? Only by looking at each case and the evidence on which those assertions were made can we know whether any of the others were erroneous.
The Downey ruling and the stay based on it make clear that they are not based on the fact that the letter was issued in error. In fact, the reading of the judgment suggests that the ruling was not even based on the content of the letter. The content of the letter coupled with the testimonies of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), Jonathan Powell and Gerry Kelly, who set out their view of the intent behind the letter, were important in the ruling. That is hugely important, because—clearly—the intent was that those people would not face prosecution. That was taken into account in the judgment.
It is understandable that people want to know who knew what and when, and what the process was, not least my colleague the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, particularly given that the scheme continued to operate under devolution, interfering—that is the only word I can suggest—with the devolved responsibilities of the Justice Department and other devolved structures of government. It is important to know that, but it is more important to know the import of the remaining letters. The Secretary of State’s view remains—she has made it clear—that those letters ought not to be treated as an amnesty, but it remains to be seen how a court would view them in the light of the judgment, which was not appealed, and in the light of the evidence given in the judgment of the intent of the letters at the time. Will saying that they no longer count retrospectively count for anything in a court of law? We wait to find out whether they count for anything or not.
Having said that, it is crucial that we decide where we want to go from here. Victims who for reasons beyond our control may never receive any justice are still out there. Some might receive justice, but many will not. We have said for a long time to successive Secretaries of State that we require a comprehensive process to deal with those issues in a manner that ensures that openness, integrity, truth and justice are placed at the core of our peace. The cases should not be treated as commodities to be traded in our political process, corroding respect for the rule of law both within the process and within the communities we represent.
We have in the past cautioned against side deals and their toxic effect. We now need to focus on getting to the truth and on learning the lessons of flawed process and side dealing. We need to refocus our community and find that comprehensive way forward on dealing with the past, for which we have called for some time. I agree with the right hon. Member for Belfast North, who said that the Haass process—for want of a better terminology —needs to move forward with new vigour, because we need to provide answers on the footing of openness, transparency, honesty and justice, for those families who still await the outcome. We need to bear in mind the hurt and aggravation of the families of four soldiers who will never know the outcome because of the application of double jeopardy in the Downey ruling.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, which I do with a level of concern. I am not a victim of the so-called troubles or a resident of Northern Ireland. I am especially cautious about interfering in the legacy of a past that is not entirely mine.
I join the various sympathies that have been expressed to the victims of the Hyde park bomb and their families and friends. This is a terrible way to end any attempt at a justice process for them. It does great damage to the reputation of justice in the UK, both on the mainland and in Northern Ireland, that we have evidence to prosecute someone, but for a rather unfortunate reason cannot have a fair trial in a public court to see whether they are guilty. The families deserved that in the Downey case.
As many Members have said, there is an issue with the whole process. Somehow, our system of justice, of which we should be proud, has gone horribly wrong. We need to ensure that we know the extent to which it has gone wrong and that no further injustices are done. The point was made earlier that the idea of the royal prerogative of mercy was to correct miscarriages of justice, not create them. I fear that this process has created some miscarriages of justice. That is the last thing we should have done.
We are all entitled to expect a fair and transparent legal and judicial process, with a trial in an open court by one’s peers where everyone knows what happened, everyone can hear the evidence and everyone can understand the verdict to which the jury comes. In a closed, invisible process, not only do we not get a trial in a public court, we do not even know who has had these letters or why, and we do not even know who has had the royal pardons. That cannot be right. We need to get to a stage where the process is transparent, and where the people of Northern Ireland and the mainland know who has had these letters and what they say. Transparent justice is the only fair situation.
On the background to the case, what strikes me as important, both in the case and in the verdict, is the intent behind the administrative process. What was the idea of issuing the letters? As was mentioned earlier, we appear to have two extreme views on that. One says that the letters were essential to making the peace process work; that Sinn Fein desperately needed them to play a full part in the process. The other extreme is that the letters were merely a factual statement of the state of inquiries that did not confer new rights on anybody, and that if there was a change of heart or new evidence was found—perhaps if a more competent file review was done and evidence was pieced together—there could still be a prosecution. With my layman’s non-lawyer logic, I would assume that the letters were largely worthless—yesterday we were not looking for a certain individual, but perhaps tomorrow we will be—and that nothing in them could be relied on. That does not appear to be the status of the letters in the very comprehensive Downey judgment.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the royal pardons and royal prerogatives. Does he agree that, apart from all the letters that were issued, the greatest insult to the victims and to the people of Northern Ireland is that royal pardons were given to people who were potentially murderers or bombers?
It clearly is an insult. I will leave it to the hon. Gentleman to decide whether it is the greatest insult. I am not a victim, I was not involved and I do not live in Northern Ireland.
I can fully understand that to achieve peace people on all sides had to hold their noses and swallow some things they really did not want to swallow. Perhaps this is something that people ought to have had to swallow. Perhaps we should have been transparent and said, “Look, there can’t be any peace without some solution on on-the-runs.” Perhaps that should have been in the Belfast agreement, and perhaps it should have been in the referendum. It was not, however, and that means that it should not have happened. It should either be there, with everyone knowing about it and accepting it, or it should not be done. The secrecy is perhaps one of the greatest insults: justice has been circumvented in secret.
What I cannot get over is why this process was entered into. Why did the process exist? Why would Sinn Fein want the process and apply for letters unless everybody involved believed that it conferred some right or new situation whereby one would no longer be prosecuted for something one would otherwise be prosecuted for? I have no reason to go on the run and I am not aware that I have done anything that would require me to go on the run—
The Whips may have those ideas.
If I was genuinely fearful that I might be prosecuted, I might not wish to remind the authorities that I existed unless I thought that a valuable assurance would result from the process. Reminding them to have a look at my file, which may have been buried in some long forgotten cabinet, gathering dust, would be a strange thing to do if I was below the radar in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. I can only assume that the process was meant to confer a valuable right or assurance that the individual was free to come back to the United Kingdom, or to be more visible in the United Kingdom, and would not be subject to prosecution.
Just to reassure my hon. Friend, the letters did not confer an amnesty. They are not “get out of jail free” cards. It was always the case that there were statements of facts about a person’s status in relation to the police and prosecuting authorities at a particular time. The reason for the judgment in the John Downey case is that he was sent a letter that was factually incorrect. The letter said that he was not wanted by the police when he was. It was the fact of that mistake—the fact that the letter was incorrect and that Mr Downey acted on that letter—that was the basis of the judgment in the Downey case. It was not the fact of the letter itself.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that clarification. That still leaves me in a situation where it is hard to understand the purpose of the letter, if it was not meant to be something one could rely on. This gentleman was carrying this letter around with him every time he entered the UK. Why would he do that if it could be superseded at some point?
If we are to place any burden on what the Secretary of State has just said, does that not create a very serious danger that the case law arising from this case in future will be that anybody can claim an abuse of process based on any mistake in communication they received from a Government official at any level?
Yes, there is a real question about what the legal status of the letters is now. We can argue about whether they were intended to be amnesties. The question has now become: has this judgment somehow elevated their status to something that was not intended?
The end of paragraph 45 of the Downey judgment refers to a letter sent by the then Prime Minister, which said:
“The Government is committed to dealing with the difficulty as soon as possible, so that those who, if they were convicted would be eligible under the early release scheme are no longer pursued”.
That is basically saying that somebody who could have been prosecuted and would have got a two-year sentence would now no longer be pursued. I am not sure how I can construe that as just being a factual statement. It appears that the intention of the Prime Minister at the time was to give some assurance that people who had gone on the run would not be prosecuted in that situation. That strikes me as being an amnesty under any other name. As the old saying goes: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. This looks very much like it was intended to be an amnesty.
It is constantly raised that the letter was issued in error. However, in the judgment the real influence came from the content of the letter combined with the testimony given as to what the effect of the letter ought to be. Personally, having read the judgment, I think that the issue of the erroneous nature of the letter was in many ways a red herring. If another letter, accurately written, had been presented with the same testimony from the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) and the others who gave testimony, the effect would have been exactly the same.
Yes, I think the hon. Lady must be right on that. The judge seemed to think that the process was meant to confer some kind of assurance on people and that the letter had to be read in line with that, but I am no expert.
We ought to look also at the concerns expressed at the start of this process by the then Attorney-General, who is quoted in paragraph 36 of the judgment. He said that he was
“seriously concerned that the exercise that is being undertaken has the capacity of severely undermining confidence in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland at this most sensitive of times. Individual prosecution decisions have to be justifiable within the framework in which all prosecution decisions are reached and I am not persuaded that some unquantifiable benefit to the peace process can be a proper basis for a decision based on the public interest”.
Those concerns have not arisen retrospectively; there were concerns at the time about what the process would really mean and what it would be seen to mean to various people in Northern Ireland. That is why I welcome the inquiries into this situation.
My hon. Friend is niggling not in a bad way, but in a great way, on this process. If, as the Northern Ireland Secretary has just said, these letters are not “get out of jail” cards or amnesties, can we have all those who have received them put before a court of law?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. One thing that needs to come out of the various inquiries is what the current legal status of the letters is in the light of the judgment and, if we are not happy with that legal status, how we can get to a legal position that we are happy with. It might be possible—I am not a lawyer; I do not know—for the Northern Ireland Office, the Secretary of State, the Attorney-General or the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland to write to every recipient of such a letter and say, “Just to be clear, you can’t rely on these things to avoid prosecution if there’s evidence that justifies a prosecution.”
This all prompts the question: what was the point of the Historical Enquiries Team—now part of the Police Service of Northern Ireland—going back and re-investigating all those old cases if, I assume not to its knowledge, 200 or so people whom it might have been investigating as part of that process had a letter saying that past evidence would not be used to bring a prosecution? What was the point of that process?
Will the hon. Gentleman also comment on the odd timing of Mr Downey’s letter? We know from the judgment that it was signed off on 20 July 2007. I would briefly remind the House that in 2007 we had a successful First Minister, Ian Paisley senior, sitting with the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. Indeed, so good was their working relationship at the time—they took up office at the beginning of May 2007—that they were unfortunately nicknamed the “Chuckle Brothers”. However, the peace process in Northern Ireland was very secure in the early spring of 2007. Sinn Fein had come on to the policing board, and the IRA had decommissioned in 2005. What was there to save in the peace process by signing off Mr Downey’s letter in July 2007?
I suspect the hon. Lady knows the position far better than I, so there is not much need for me to add anything to what she has said.
To return to the status of the letters, if we do not like it, we need to discover the process for, if anything, restoring the position to what we think it should be—that they do not confer any kind of amnesty. If that requires a Bill to come before this House, perhaps we should do that. Given the devolution of justice, it might require something to go through the Assembly. I suspect that that might be a political challenge under the circumstances, but it is important that one of the outcomes of the inquiries is getting the legal position to where it should be, in the interests of fair and transparent justice for all the victims, on all sides.
I do not see how we can have a process that applies to only one community and not the security services. I think that was a grave mistake in entering into this process. Clearly it would have been better to have a full debate on the amnesty. We could all have had a vote on an amnesty—if it had not gone through, everyone should have been prosecuted where there was evidence; if it had gone through, it would be put behind people. That is clearly a debate that can be had now—it was had nearly a decade ago—but we have to take the assurances of all the Northern Ireland Members who are here for this debate that that is not something that would be welcomed in Northern Ireland. There is no desire for that amnesty.
I have no great knowledge of Northern Ireland law. However, having sat through some inquiries on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland that looked at the equalities position in Northern Ireland and the power of the law to prevent one community from being favoured over another, I cannot see any way under Northern Irish law that there could be a process with any legal effect that so obviously favoured one community over the other. If I was a loyalist who feared prosecution or who perhaps was being prosecuted, I might be arguing and saying, “Wait a minute, there’s been this process for one side that ought to have applied equally. I should have had the right to apply for that letter. If I had been given that letter, I could have my prosecution stayed.” Indeed, I believe that might be the subject of a case. If I was a member of the security services who might face prosecution, I would be making that exact point as well: “Wait a minute. Why wasn’t I given the chance to write in 2000 and ask if I was being investigated and whether there was any evidence against me? If I had received my letter, I could have had my prosecution stayed.”
We have created a mess, and not just for the recipients of these letters. We might not like the position they are in now, and in every prosecution of someone from the security services or the loyalist side, I am sure the first thing their lawyer will do is try to get their prosecution stayed on the grounds that the process did not apply equally to all members of the community. We have created a mess, and the actions of the then Prime Minister and Secretary of State—which, as is clear from the judgment, deliberately created a process that was designed to achieve that—are thoroughly shameful to British justice.
This is perhaps one of the bleakest episodes that we will ever see, because it has tarnished a peace process that did not need tarnishing—a process that is working and needs to work. It was heartening that the leader of the Democratic Unionist party was clear earlier that he did not want the institutions torn down—he did not see that as a solution or something that would give a political advantage—and that the institutions need to be made to work. Whatever the outcome of the inquiries, I hope that all the parties stick by that. The best way forward is for the process to advance and the institutions to get stronger, not to try to unravel them, no matter how shameful this case was.
The Downey case unfortunately brings into sharp focus some of the problems that we have as a society in dealing with the past. As I said in an intervention, we are in the unfortunate position of knowing that if the Downey case had not materialised, we would still be oblivious to the pernicious influence of the administrative scheme in Northern Ireland.
Since the Downey case, those of us who were not in possession of knowledge of the scheme have been criticised by those in Sinn Fein, who say that had we been informed in the run-up to any agreement on the scheme, we would have opposed it, and that was part of the reason for our being kept in the dark. After that was seen to be somewhat obtuse and ludicrous, the same people in Sinn Fein said that we knew about the scheme all the time. They tried to quote various judgments that might have made some passing reference to a scheme that required to be carried out. However, there never was any reference in the public domain, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, anything that was put in the public domain, either in the House or outside, precluded a scheme of this nature. In fact, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), the former Secretary of State, made it absolutely clear that there was no scheme. Full stop. Period.
May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the characteristic features that were mentioned by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain)? I am sorry that he is not here this afternoon, and I have explained why I understand he cannot be here. The Downey judgment, which is now in the public domain, contains written testimony submitted by the right hon. Gentleman, who said:
“The procedure was in a number of ways wholly unprecedented.”
Another characteristic was that
“the scheme progressed in a non public manner. Confidentiality was maintained for the individuals who submitted their names to the scheme; neither the names of the applicants nor the outcome of the applications were subjected to publicity.”
That is in the public domain, so for Sinn Fein to claim that we all knew about this and that we all have amnesia about it now is absolutely untrue and very insulting.
I thank the hon. Lady for that very enlightening quotation, which simply proves the point that what unites people right across Northern Ireland—with the exception of those who used to advocate violence and excuse or defend it—is that we are all rightly appalled at the secret nature of the scheme.
It has also been said—others have alluded to this—that members of the Policing Board were in some way briefed, but when we examine the record, we see that no one was ever briefed on such an administrative scheme. Of course, everyone knew that there was an outstanding issue with on-the-runs. There were those who said, “This matter must be resolved,” and those of us who were determined to say, “If it comes before Parliament and there is any possibility of us having some input into a resolution that means giving people immunity for what they have done in the past, we will resolutely oppose it.” That much is absolutely clear.
Others have mentioned the Eames-Bradley report, and the fact that one of its authors, Mr Bradley, said that people knew about the scheme. However, when we look into the matter, it is absolutely clear to us that, whoever may have been informed privately, no one was informed publicly. There was no public reference whatsoever to a scheme of this nature.
Yes, indeed. I understand that Mr Bradley, who is the former vice-chairman of the Policing Board, said that the issue had been brought before the board. In fact, he had left the board at that stage.
Let me now turn to the question of intent, which is the very kernel of the issue. What was the intent of the administration that initiated the scheme, and what was the intent of the administration that continued it? What was the intent of those who were sending the letters, and what were the perception and understanding of the recipients? That is the key to the entire matter.
It is abundantly clear to everyone that the intent of the letters was to reassure people who might have believed—for a reason that we all understand—that there were circumstances in which, if they either came back to Northern Ireland or were approached by an officer of the law in another jurisdiction in which they happened to be, they could at some point in the future be made accountable for crimes in which they were suspected of having been involved. It is clear that they believed that the letters made them immune from that, and believed that they would be protected or sheltered in some way from the investigation of actions with which they had been associated in the past. For that very reason, Sinn Fein was quite happy to be the messenger of the tidings that would have been brought to the recipients of those letters.
It has been said—this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who has had to leave the Chamber—that when news of the Downey case broke, disillusionment in some sections of the Unionist community became more apparent. I have a very different view. All that the Downey case did was crystallise some of the disillusionment that had been apparent for a number of years in sections of the Unionist community, and bring it into public focus. Unfortunately, we now have to try to repair the damage that the Downey judgment has done, along with a series of other issues.
The underlying principle is that those who supported terror in the past have used the potential of a return to violence as a bargaining chip, and not for the first time. Many of us believe that during the negotiations leading to and following the Belfast agreement, and, undoubtedly, during the negotiations relating to the administrative scheme, there was always the spectre—the prospect—that if this was not agreed to, violence could, unfortunately, return. Our view is very clear, and it is that we cannot be held to ransom by people who make threats or insinuations that bad times could return.
My hon. Friend has made an important point. May I reinforce it by asking whether he recalls, as I do, that at the time of the negotiations on the devolution of police and justice powers to Northern Ireland, when certain issues still needed to be cleared up and properly debated, some people—including Members of this House who, at that time, held ministerial office—told us that if we did not devolve those powers, there would be violence on the streets and the strength of the dissidents would increase? Even after the devolution of the powers, we have problems with dissident terrorists, so that is a bogus argument.
That is another instance of the use of a threat that will continue to be used. In fact, just this week we heard a prominent member of Sinn Fein say that there could be a crisis in the making. Well, we have had seven years of uninterrupted devolved government, and notwithstanding all the difficulties that have arisen during those seven years, there has not been a crisis. There may be a physical revolving door at the entrance to Stormont, but there has not been a revolving door in terms of devolution. We have survived many of these mini-crises and problems, some of them invented and some real.
Let us focus on what will happen in the near future. I have no difficulty whatsoever in saying that the current devolution process in Northern Ireland is sufficiently robust to withstand any prosecution of any member of Sinn Fein, however senior, if it can be demonstrated that that person has been guilty of involvement in terrorist acts in the past. I am currently trying to establish whether that is the case, as it may well be—and if it is the case, it would be an act of cowardice, of political expediency, if anyone were to say “We cannot proceed with that prosecution because doing so might jeopardise the political process in Northern Ireland.”
As I have said, we have had seven years of uninterrupted devolution, and hopefully it will continue. I have been part of the process for those seven years, and I believe that we must work to improve it, but we must not allow it to be held to ransom by those who want to make progress in terms of further concessions to the throwback period during which many of them were involved in violence. They want to expunge their previous involvement from the record, and that must not and cannot be allowed to happen.
Today, thankfully, we have had an opportunity that has been denied to us in the past. The light of truth is now being brought to bear on the administrative scheme, but it is unfortunate that it is being brought to bear so belatedly. Had it been brought to bear at the time of the scheme’s initiation, the reality and the outcome might have been very different.
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate, and congratulate all who were responsible on arranging it. This issue is important and incredibly sensitive, and we should all approach it with care and consideration. The tenor of the debate has been very much in that spirit so far, and I warmly welcome it.
Let me associate myself particularly with the remarks addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) to the families of those who were murdered in cold blood in Hyde park on that terrible day. That was one of a number of outrageous attacks on Britain’s armed forces, who did their level best for 38 years— under Operation Banner, the longest military operation in British history—to bring peace to Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) —who was here a moment ago—and to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who was also present earlier. During the troubles, 3,500 people were killed, and about 1,000 of them were members of Her Majesty’s armed forces.
I will touch only briefly on the current case, as I want to concentrate on its implications. Having reflected since this case hit the headlines, I think that there probably had to be a scheme of some sort to try to deal with the on-the-runs, and there was inevitably going to be a messy outcome. I have listened carefully to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and others, but I note that in a written answer on 1 July 2002 Mr Quentin Davies—then a Conservative Member, but now, of course, on the other side having taken the Labour Whip and thereby getting a passport to the other place—asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
“if he will make a statement on his plans to inform persons suspected of involvement in terrorist activities that their cases will not be pursued.”
Dr John Reid, now Lord Reid, answered:
“We are still considering how best to implement the proposals which we and the Irish Government made in relation to this following the Weston Park talks.”—[Official Report, 1 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 136W.]
He answered another question as follows:
“As a result of inquiries received and referred to the prosecuting authorities and the police, 32 individuals have been informed over the past two years that they are not wanted for arrest in relation to terrorist offences. —[Official Report, 1 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 137W.]
That is by no means an open statement explaining a specific scheme, but clearly it did indicate that something was afoot. I do not think one can argue that Parliament was not informed; it was, through the medium of the written answer to a parliamentary question. We are busy people, however, and we face a torrent of e-mails and information from all sides, and I think it is unfortunate that it was not possible to make a more explicit statement to the House of Commons and Parliament more generally about what the Government were planning to do.
It is clearly the case that, as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said, a lot of people have had to swallow hard and hold their noses about some of the decisions that were made, and she mentioned how hard she found it to accept the early release scheme, but she also made another point: that this scheme, which was not fully explained to Parliament but clearly was in evidence, arose out of discussions between the British Government and the Irish Government. She also made the point that there appears to have been no such arrangement in respect of anyone other than those suspected of republican terrorism. That raises fundamental questions that I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will want to address. I am encouraged, however, by what she said at the Dispatch Box earlier in our debate, and she has put in her written ministerial statements that these letters were not intended to be an indemnity; they were not intended to be “get out of jail free” cards. I hope that message will be clearly got through to all those involved in this.
As I am sure the House recognises, as the Member of Parliament for the home of the British Army, Aldershot, which also formerly was for 50 years the home of the Parachute Regiment, I have a special interest in these matters, and it is on behalf of those of my constituents who were in Londonderry on that tragic day of 30 January 1972 that I seek to speak. At this point I would like to pay tribute to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), who is present today. I took a delegation of former soldiers to see him when he was Secretary of State and they and I could not have been more courteously and properly received by him. That is not to say he took their side, but it is to say that I thought he was extremely professional and extremely fair, and I thank him very much for that. I think this is the first opportunity I have had to say that publicly, although I did have the opportunity of saying it to him over a cup of coffee this morning.
We are considering today the implications of the John Downey case, however, as much as who knew what and when, and what the letters mean and so forth. For me the implications are that that raises again the issue of the treatment of the soldiers who were in Londonderry on 30 January 1972. I understand that that has been exacerbated by a decision taken by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to erect posters in Londonderry—I have not been there, but I am told this is the case—appealing for witnesses to come forward to provide evidence about that tragedy. We are talking about an event that took place 42 years ago, and it is astonishing for the PSNI to be appealing for witnesses now, not just 42 years later, but, indeed, four years after the Prime Minister made that memorable statement early in his premiership to the House in June 2010.
I have constituents who are now in their 70s and 80s who were there. They had to go through 12 years of the Saville inquiry, costing £200 million, and they had hoped that the Saville inquiry would draw a line under this, but now they find that not only is the matter not concluded, but the police deem it their business to put up these posters inviting people to give evidence. What on earth have they been doing over the past four years—leave aside the previous 38 years—to obtain that evidence?
The Prime Minister made it clear that the prosecuting authorities in Northern Ireland are entirely independent of any political process. Therefore, this is entirely a matter for the PSNI. It is astonishing that it feels the need to do this now, and I say that to make this point, too: it is the PSNI who are responsible for the whole disaster of the John Downey case in the first place. It was they who, in the vernacular, screwed up and failed to provide the Northern Ireland Office with information about what the Metropolitan police were looking for. My constituents are now invited to have confidence in an inquiry carried out by people who completely screwed up in the John Downey case.
When the hon. Gentleman makes these allegations, perhaps he should bear in mind who issued these letters, who initiated the process, and which Government continued the process. Indeed, his own Secretary of State has issued 43 of these letters since the current Government came to office. If there has been a screw-up, surely it was a screw-up on behalf of the politicians, who continued to operate what they knew was a secret and dirty deal.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and, indeed, I understand the passion with which he makes it, and I spoke on BBC Radio Foyle saying I thought there was a covert deal. I merely refer to the written answers in 2002 to illustrate that there was evidence. I did not know about it even though I was a shadow Defence Minister at the time, but there was evidence that these matters were being discussed. Whether or not they should have been discussed is another matter. What is clear—this is where I agree with the hon. Gentleman—is that this arrangement appears to have been, and continues to be, entirely partial. In other words, it applies only to those believed to be responsible for republican terrorism, and a legitimate matter to which the Secretary of State needs to turn her attention is whether this arrangement, to which this Government have also clearly been party, is fit for purpose, in so far as it is partial.
I wish to continue my point, because I am conscious that lots of hon. Members wish to speak and I wish to discuss a particular aspect: the case of my constituents who were serving the Crown. Whatever the verdict of the Saville inquiry, these men were doing their level best to try to hold the ring to keep the peace, and on that day there was a distinction between them and the rest of the community—they were in the uniform of Her Majesty’s armed forces. They were clearly visible and they were identifiable. They faced a crowd and were confronted by armed men lurking in the shadows, indistinguishable from the civilian crowd. It is hugely important to differentiate between the cold-blooded, premeditated murder of the kind we saw so many times conducted by republican terrorists and loyalist terrorists, and the heat-of-the-battle mistakes made by members of Her Majesty’s armed forces. To the extent that we sent them there, we cannot absolve ourselves entirely of responsibility in these matters.
So I do make a distinction and I do pose the question to this House: are we to accept that these men who were doing their best—I accept the verdict of the Saville inquiry, difficult though I find it, having spoken to many of these guys—and their behaviour should be equated with that of Ivor Bell, who was accused a few days ago of aiding and abetting in the cold-blooded murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 and one of the disappeared? I submit that there is a substantial distinction between these crimes, and between these men and whoever was responsible for placing the bomb in Hyde park or the bombs in Guildford, Birmingham and elsewhere.
I lost a very close friend, murdered on his doorstep in north London—Ross McWhirter, of the “Guinness Book of Records”. He was shot down on his doorstep and lay dying in the arms of his wife. We on this side have lost a number of our colleagues, murdered by the IRA—in cold blood, by people indistinguishable from the rest of the community. So we are not untouched by these matters, but I do agree with everyone that we need to move forward.
Before concluding, I wish to contrast what I have just said about the cold-blooded, premeditated murders to which the terrorists were party and what the Prime Minister said in his statement:
“Those looking for premeditation, those looking for a plan, those even looking for a conspiracy involving senior politicians or senior members of the armed forces, will not find it in this report.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 740.]
So whatever the mistakes—the failures—identified by Saville in his report on the activities of the Paras in Londonderry on 30 January 1972, there was no premeditation; this happened in the heat of battle. It is important that we recognise that we have a duty to the soldiers we sent there, and I think there is a case that natural justice needs to be brought to play in this matter. Surely it is not fair, 42 years on, nearly half a century later, that these men, who were doing their best, along with the 250,000 others who served in Northern Ireland, should still have this question mark hovering over them in the evening of their lives—
In their old age, as my hon. and gallant Friend says.
I remind the House that we suffered in Aldershot, for on 22 February 1972 an IRA attack killed six civilians and one Roman Catholic padre, Padre Weston. It is true that one man was convicted—he served four years in prison and died in prison—but others were involved in that and they have never been brought to justice. I have not called for a public inquiry into what happened in Aldershot then and the bombing of the mess of the 16th Parachute Brigade, but if what is happening continues, there will be pressure on me to say, “Okay we had that inquiry into the events of 30 January 1972 in Londonderry, so what about having a public inquiry into what happened in Aldershot?” I do not think that would serve a purpose. So I do believe that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and the right hon. Member for Belfast North said, things in Northern Ireland have improved—its economy is growing and there is peace—and it is important that we look to the future.
Let me close by saying that I agree with the Prime Minister that we need to
“come together to close this painful chapter on Northern Ireland's troubled past.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 742.]
Let us do that and, in order to do that, I would like the House to consider the point that those who served as servants of the Crown in Northern Ireland do deserve to live out their days without having the threat of prosecution lingering over them.
Order. May I say to hon. Members that the length of the speeches thus far means that if everybody makes the same length of speech, some Members will be disappointed in this debate? Rather than set a time limit I am going to ask hon. Members to speak for about 10 minutes. This will not be on the clock; I am asking Members to look at the clock when they start speaking and speak for about 10 minutes—if they take 11 minutes, there is no great panic. In that way, everybody will be able to get in. If people take longer, I will, regrettably, need to have a time limit. I think we can all co-operate and make sure that everybody gets the time they need to make their contribution to this afternoon’s debate. That gives us not a huge amount of time for the wind-ups, but sufficient, I hope, to deal with the points that are being made.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I join others in thanking the Backbench Business Committee for acceding to the request that I tabled for this debate. It was of course tabled by the complement of sitting MPs for Northern Ireland and supported by the Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.
The parties that sought this debate interpret some of the issues in the background differently, and perhaps will have some differences of emphasis and interpretation in terms of the implications. What absolutely unites all of us was our frustration at how we all appeared to be both insulted and implicated by the terms in which some people responded to this judgment and the fact of it. I understand why he cannot be here today, but I include in that the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). The rest of us were not all in on this in the way he and, sometimes, Sinn Fein has implied. We have seen the adoption of contradictory positions. On the one hand, Sinn Fein has said that everyone knew all about this, and that this is an entirely confected concern now and, on the other hand, it has said that it was out of sensitivity to other people that it was secret and had to be done in that way.
When one reads the whole judgment, it is absolutely clear how long and persistent Sinn Fein was in pursuit of the case for a scheme. It is also clear that a scheme was running from pretty early on. It went through various different mutations, but it was never enough. There was always the need for something more and for something else. What comes through is that in all the negotiations between Sinn Fein and the British and Irish Governments, Sinn Fein was usually negotiating for itself and its people. It was never about the broad interests of the people or the agreement and its implementation. It was never about the Irish democratic interest or about the interests of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland; it was about Sinn Fein and its people. That is what comes through consistently in the evidence.
Contrary to the way in which the media have tended to treat this issue since the court case, it is also clear that the court rested most of its judgment not so much on the content of the letter but on the import of the letter based on the evidence provided in the affidavits from, among others, the right hon. Member for Neath and Jonathan Powell. The two key people who gave evidence to the court that helped to bring about the judgment then condemned and criticised the rest of us, in the media and in other outpourings, for our reaction to it, for questioning its implications and for raising issues in relation to the background.
Let us be clear: the right hon. Gentleman has rested a lot on the fact that it was publicly known that there was a Bill in 2005. Yes, there was a Bill in 2005. The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill—misnamed the “on-the-runs” Bill—went far beyond the issue of on-the-runs. It was not just that it provided for a scheme that we now know about, except that it included loyalists and members of the security forces. It went far further and deeper than that. It was a deeply offensive and insulting scheme that used terms such as “special prosecution” to dress up the fact that people were basically going through a process for immunity—they did not even have to go to court to get that immunity; and they did not even have to apply for the certificate themselves. Of course, victims did not have to know about it. However, if something arose in relation to any case and someone wanted to compel a witness to appear, the witness had to appear. The person who was benefiting from the certificate would not have to appear. They would not have to spend a day in court or look a victim in the eye, but a victim who fundamentally disapproved of this whole bizarre, obscure and sick process for which the previous Government were ready to legislate in 2005 would have been compelled to appear on penalty of contempt. That is how strange it was.
We also must remember that the big scheme of 2005—the general scheme of amnesty—with its architecture of special tribunals, appeals commissioners and special prosecutors was never cited at the time by the Democratic Unionist party as a deal breaker on the way to what everyone knew was going to be an agreement that would see a restoration of devolution with Sinn Fein and the DUP in partnership in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. We all knew in 2005 that we were on the way to that. There had been the abortive comprehensive agreement in December 2004. We all knew that the talks were ongoing and that they involved the British and Irish Governments and Sinn Fein and the DUP. When this Bill appeared, people were rightly aghast, but the DUP did not make it a deal breaker. Other issues were deal breakers, such as how the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were to be appointed and about what was going to happen with north-south reviews. This scheme, the worst one that the British Government were prepared to legislate for, was not in itself a deal breaker. That is the point that Jonathan Powell might have been referring to in his book. Whether it is accurate to say that a letter had been sent to Ian Paisley, I do not know. I know that there are many other things in Jonathan Powell’s book that are not accurate. But I do know from when I was strongly opposing the Bill in Committee that the then DUP MP for East Belfast told me that he did not understand why I was investing so much political capital in trying to stop a Bill that was a done deal.
The DUP’s concern was to ensure that everyone knew that the deal was done under David Trimble, so that they could hang it around his neck. The constant misleading reference to Weston Park, which was made at the time of that Bill and in the very court case that led to the Downey judgment, has continued because the Government of the day contrived to say that everybody was in on it and that it was agreed by all parties at Weston Park. It was not agreed by all parties at Weston Park. First, all parties were not around the one table. Secondly, there was no agreement at Weston Park. The different parties were being talked to by the two Governments about different things. It was no way to run a process, and we loudly complained about it at the time. We said that there would be more side deals, sub deals and shabby and secret deals, which would end up corrupting the process. Those chickens have now come home to roost. It is not the case that this was agreed at Weston Park by us. When the two Governments published a paper after Weston Park that included reference to the on-the-runs issue, we made it clear that it was not part of the agreement and that we understood that people were making a case around an anomaly. We did not see it as part of the agreement as such.
Let us look at some of the arguments that have been made since this has become public. On the one hand, we hear from Government and others that these letters are not an amnesty; the right hon. Member for Neath has told us that the letters are not an amnesty. Yet he goes on to say that because these letters are now known about, there should be a general amnesty, including for the soldiers, loyalists and others who might possibly face charges in relation to Bloody Sunday. It is strange to say that the scheme is not an amnesty, but if it becomes publicly known then there should be an amnesty for everyone else.
If people did receive indications from the police and prosecuting authorities that there were no grounds for pursuing them and that there was no live interest in any possible case against them, I see that as entirely fair. If, however, as with the soldiers on Bloody Sunday, there is an inquiry on the basis of evidence, that has to take its course, just as it must for anybody else. I share people’s disgust at the way in which this scheme has been conducted—where it has been worked through as a Shinners list. One party goes to the police with a list of names and the list seems to grow all the time. When we first heard about the on-the-run scheme, we were told that it involved only a few dozen people. Now we know that it is many, many more. We said that there would be many more, but were told by Tony Blair and others that that was wrong. Sinn Fein, which says that it believes in an Ireland of equals, has complained about political policing. It has criticised some investigations into offences since 1998 and has said that those investigations amounted to political policing, even though they were driven by evidence from victims.
If anything is political policing it is when the police end up providing a scheme on a parti pris basis, with one political party for a certain political motive, just because that has been brokered or directed by the Government of the day, and that is what has happened in this instance. I do not go along with the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), who I know takes a deep interest in our affairs, in saying that we now need to know the names of everybody who received letters. The fact is that the people who got letters were those whose names were not known to the police; they were not actually being sought in any way. Some people took themselves on the run for different reasons. They could have been supergrasses who thought that they would be at more risk. Some might have felt that they were at risk of being under duress to turn supergrass themselves on the very limited information that they might have had. Many people might have had their own reason for taking themselves outside the jurisdiction.
We never had an objection to a scheme that was about notifying people who were outside the jurisdiction that they could return without being in peril of arrest. When we said that and when we opposed the 2005 Bill, we were told by the then Government that that could not be done and it would not be enough, and Sinn Fein was saying the same.
May I press the hon. Gentleman a little further to clarify his position and that of his party? Victims’ families feel extremely aggrieved by the Downey judgment and the fact that they now know that suspected murderers, perhaps of their loved ones, have been given an administrative letter. If members of those families come forward and ask the Secretary of State to confirm whether someone who is alleged to have been involved in the murder of their loved ones has received one of the administrative letters, surely to goodness the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would support the release of that information to those families.
I want all families to get as much information as they possibly can. The Government do not seem to be sure how many letters they sent and are now having to refer to Sinn Fein to find out who might have got letters, so I am not sure how reliable that would be.
The answer to this added grievance for those who suffered grief during the troubles might lie in ensuring that the scandal surrounding the scheme does not damage the Haass process and its prospects for dealing with some of the outstanding issues about the past and making good the difficulties with the mechanisms for dealing with individual cases, including the police ombudsman’s powers on past cases and the difficulties with the Historical Enquiries Team.
That work should be supplemented with and complemented by the hugely important thematics arm provided for in the Haass proposals. It is our view, which we raised during the Haass talks, that we need to address not only what happened during the troubles but how the past has been treated since the troubles. At times, there has been dereliction and a collective failure in the process, because we have not addressed promises made to victims and pledges made about the past in the Good Friday agreement.
Some of us tried in talks after talks to say that we should deal with the promises made to victims and the past, but, for instance, in Hillsborough 2003, when the Social Democratic and Labour party and Alliance party were arguing for a victims’ forum, partly with an eye towards considering what could be done about the past, that was vetoed because the Ulster Unionist party and Sinn Fein did not want it. Of course, at Hillsborough 2003 the two Governments produced yet another statement on the on-the-runs, saying that they would deal with the situation through a scheme that would apply to all scheduled offences. That was why it was pretty dishonest of Sinn Fein to then say that it was shocked to discover that the 2005 Bill included everybody and anybody. That was clear from day one of the Bill, but it took it until December—weeks into the process—to withdraw its support. The opposition that some of us voiced to the Hain-Adams Bill helped to mobilise victims’ groups to put pressure on Sinn Fein to withdraw its support. The Government nevertheless persisted in coming up with a bespoke scheme for Sinn Fein and this administrative scheme, which they kept relatively private.
I know that you gave us some advice on time limits, Madam Deputy Speaker, but as I led the bid for this debate I want to make some points in anticipation of some of the things that I might find myself asked by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.
In some of the talks subsequent to the withdrawal of the Bill, such as those at St Andrews and, latterly, those that led to the devolution of justice and policing, we asked, by the by, what was happening about the on-the-runs as that had clearly been a big issue in all the previous declarations and we did not seem to be hearing about it at those talks. We were quietly told that it was not an issue and that we should forget about it.
I am particularly sorry that we do not have the benefit of the presence of Paul Goggins today, a Minister who served with absolute distinction and aplomb in the course of all this. He would have had insights to reflect on from that period. I know from conversations I had with him at St Andrews and in other places that there seemed to be a concern that the SDLP would create problems for Sinn Fein because our objections to what was being done in relation to MI5 were too vocal—because we got too outside of ourselves—and that if we asked too much about the on-the-runs, there was a danger we would spook things for the Democratic Unionist party and create difficulties. It is not our business to create difficulties for anybody; we want the process to move forward—but it must move forward on the basis of ethics and morality.
The right hon. Member for Neath has sought to say a lot about a lot of us in this regard. He says that we must move on and that there needs to be a wider process of amnesty. He will know full well that in South Africa a key piece of language used in the law that established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the phrase
“to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.”
That is what we have to do. The Bill that the previous Government tried to introduce in 2005 was not a morally accepted basis for dealing with the past, nor is this scheme. The Haass proposals offer us a morally acceptable basis for dealing with the past, and one thing that should be clear is that, whatever else there is disagreement over in the text of the proposals, one point on which there is no disagreement is the part that repudiates amnesty as a basis for dealing with the past. The right hon. Gentleman has also commended Eames-Bradley to us, saying we should calm down and get back to it and to Haass. They both say that amnesty is no basis for our dealing with the past.
We are told that the letters are not an amnesty. We are also told that everybody knew about them, yet one of the people who tells us that, Jonathan Powell, has also said that of course the letters were private as they were nobody’s business but that of the police and those who received them. Nobody’s business. The victims and the wider democratic public have no business in them whatsoever. The idea is that a private scheme can produce letters that will then be someone’s private property—but they can then be produced in a court and have the effect that the letter appeared to have in this case. That effect was down not to any legal strength or standing—we are told that the letter was a mistake—but to the import it was given by other evidence. The suggestion was not so much that the peace process might fall apart if the prosecution proceeded, as they were perhaps too subtle for that, but that the state could never be trusted again by anybody in any negotiation or any process if the mistaken word of an official under such a shaky scheme was not seen to be upheld.
The imperative was that the word of the Government through this mistaken letter from an official had to be seen to be upheld at all costs. Many words have been given out in this process that have not been upheld. The promises made to victims in the Good Friday agreement have not been upheld. The commitment of the British Government to legislate for a Bill of Rights has not been upheld. The solemn commitment at Saint Andrews about an Irish language Act and so on have not been upheld. Clear commitments were made that if Judge Cory recommended public inquiries, including in the case of Patrick Finucane, there would be a public inquiry, but they were completely absconded from—mind you, that has no implications for anybody as it is just about the broad democratic process. Those were merely commitments made in Parliament.
In relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), we should remember that this House was told on the day of the Saville report that any evidence that was there to be pursued by the police and considered by the prosecution authorities would have to be so pursued and so considered and that the process would have to take its course from there. That was a solemn commitment and a solemn pledge from which, unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Neath and the hon. Member for Aldershot seem to want the Government to abscond. There are all sorts of double standards here; it is not just Sinn Fein who are guilty of double standards in this whole sordid process.
Today, we are talking about events in London on Tuesday 20 July 1982. In particular, we are debating the consequences of an explosion—about 20 to 25 lbs of high explosive was packed with nails to cause maximum casualties, and hidden inside a Morris Marina car—in South Carriage drive near Hyde park. It was placed there by the so-called “England department” of the Irish Republican Army, and the bomb killed four members of the Blues and Royals as they rode to change the guard on Horse Guards.
Apparently, John Downey, who was arrested at Gatwick in May last year, was a leading operative of the so-called “England department” of the IRA. Yet he felt he was immune from prosecution, because he had in his possession a letter saying that he was not wanted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which appears to have been issued as part of the bargaining between the authorities and terrorists during the Northern Ireland peace process. When the letter was issued to Downey, the authorities either missed the fact that Downey was wanted on a 20-year arrest warrant for his alleged part in the July 1982 Hyde park bomb, or they decided to ignore the fact.
I totally understand why so many people are utterly dismayed by the fact that a suspect for the murders of four soldiers by IRA terrorists has apparently been granted immunity from prosecution. To my mind, it was an extraordinary mistake by both politicians and police in Northern Ireland. All of us here today in Parliament should send a clear signal that murder is murder and those responsible for it should face the full rigour of the law.
I remember 20 July 1982 extremely well. At the time, I was a company commander serving in Northern Ireland; unknowingly, I was also only six months away from being directly involved in a similar atrocity at Ballykelly, where I personally lost six soldiers killed by terrorists on 6 December 1982. It has had a tremendous impact on me.
In the Hyde park bombing, there were not just four deaths, but 31 other people were wounded. Seven horses were killed and several others hurt. Some older Members may remember the heroic Blues and Royals horse called Sefton, who became something of a national hero for making such a great recovery after the incident.
To their immortal memory, like my friend the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), I remind the House of the names of our men who were killed in this atrocious barbarism.
Lieutenant Anthony Daly was aged 23 and had been married only 27 days before he was murdered. I gather his mother was waiting at Horse Guards to proudly watch her son carry out his duty as escort commander. Corporal Roy Bright, aged 36, was carrying the standard. A senior soldier, Roy did not die at the scene but in hospital three days later. Trooper Simon Tipper, aged 19, died on the street. He had been married less than a month and must have been looking forward to a great life with his new bride. Finally, I must name Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young, who was just a week before his 20th birthday. With his wife Judith, he already had two children, who will never remember their heroic father. He died in hospital a day after the attack.
Neither must we forget—and we have not raised this matter—that the same IRA team, which must have consisted of several people, was also responsible for a second explosion that day. It killed seven Royal Green Jackets bandsmen in Regent’s park a few hours later. It would be remiss of me not to at least name them, too. Their names, without rank, because it does not matter any more, were Graham Barker, Robert Livingstone, John McKnight, John Heritage, George Mesure, Keith Powell and Laurence Smith. May their souls also rest in peace.
I gather that Mr Downey has at some stage raised horses, which I find somewhat ironic, and I would dearly like to see him brought to trial in whatever way we can. However, I accept that may seem unlikely, but in the meantime, as I have mentioned, there were others in his team. One other person has also been identified and taken to court, but there must have been others in the team that carried out this attack.
Everyone in this Chamber without exception will agree with this: let all who have committed criminal acts in Northern Ireland sleep unsoundly. I very much hope that one day the authorities will knock on their door, wherever they are, and bring them to book.
It is good to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I agree with everything he has said, and it was said with great passion.
The day that the Downey case fell in the courts in the Old Bailey was a very sad day indeed for British justice. Not only was a terrorist released on to the streets again, but the families who had lost loved ones were left with no recourse, because the Government have said there is no course of appeal, and the old wounds were all opened up again.
The exposure of the on-the-runs—or OTRs—administrative scheme and royal prerogatives was a stab in the heart of our British values of justice. The entire scheme was based upon a lie. Its creators claim that the early release scheme in the 1998 Good Friday agreement created an anomaly for those who were on the run. It did no such thing.
There were many fundamental problems with the Belfast agreement, and that is why the Democratic Unionist party rejected it and negotiated the new St Andrews agreement. However, it did have a clear mechanism for dealing with pre-1998 offences. A person could be brought before the court, receive a fair trial and if convicted, serve time in jail. The sentence would have been a mere two years, thanks to the likes of the Ulster Unionist party and the Progressive Unionist party, who signed the 1998 pact, but victims would at least have had their day in court and an opportunity for justice to be done.
This conspiracy drew in a range of our institutions by acts of commission and omission. Parliament was bypassed and misled. The legislation for OTRs at that stage was withdrawn because it was unwanted, both by Parliament and by the public. It was rejected because it was repugnant, but at least it offered some level of oversight and licensing to prevent reoffending. The scheme that the Government and the Northern Ireland Office came up with did none of that. Their contempt for Parliament included deliberately misleading it, and all the political parties except Sinn Fein, on how they were dealing with the OTRs.
Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to confirm that although all the parties objected to the obnoxious Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, the Government in power at the time would have pushed it through this House had it not been for Sinn Fein belatedly registering its opposition to it? It was dropped because of Sinn Fein’s opposition, not the overwhelming opposition of the general public, RUC widows and others.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right.
No unionist would be surprised by the role the Northern Ireland Office at the time had in the design and implementation of the scheme. At the time, its pandering to republicanism and its contempt for Unionism and its representatives were a permanent feature of direct rule. However, it drew the Police Service of Northern Ireland into its dirty deals as well. In a question to the assistant chief constable—I believe it was Assistant Chief Constable Harris—my colleague on the Policing Board, Mr Thomas Buchanan, asked about the OTRs. The PSNI’s response was this:
“At this moment in time, there are no on the runs we are aware of residing in Northern Ireland, and if there was information to suggest there were individuals who are wanted for crime living within this jurisdiction, then we would be very anxious to learn of that.”
That was in 2010. That gave the impression that there was a desire to catch criminals, but the scheme was doing exactly the opposite.
My hon. Friend knows that the former deputy chair of the Policing Board, Mr Bradley, has publicly stated that the board was briefed about the on-the-runs and knew all about it. Will my hon. Friend go further today and dismiss that as a fantasy?
Yes, I certainly will. It was an absolute fantasy, as the evidence that has come from Policing Board representatives over the past few weeks confirms.
At the same time the OTR scheme was running, the PSNI established the Historical Enquiries Team. It was supposed to be a systematic approach to give every victim the opportunity for justice. The OTR scheme now draws a long shadow over all the HET’s work. Some will conclude that as one section of the PSNI tried to put people before a court, another was helping them to avoid it.
I will not speak for long, because I know that many other Members wish to speak.
I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I want to move on and so will not give way, because many Members wish to speak.
The constituency I represent, as those who know Northern Ireland will understand, has a big contingent of security force personnel, both past and present. I know from my discussions with those individuals and organisations that they are totally disgusted by this scheme. Their attitude is that it took courage to put on the uniform of the Crown forces to defend the people and Northern Ireland, and if someone in their organisations stepped out of line, the full rigour of the law was brought upon them, and rightly so, they emphasised. But there are people who have been on the run and who went away on their holidays, and they were on the run because they were conscious of what they had done, and they got letters to give them reprieve. There is one law for one organisation and one law for another. It is despicable. It has opened a can of worms.
My last point is about the royal prerogatives. It would be interesting to discover who has received the royal prerogatives. Has Mr McGuinness? Has Mr Adams? Has Mr Kelly? I will go further. As the House knows, and as I have mentioned before, a number of members of my family were assassinated by the IRA. Have some of the people who carried out those murders received the royal prerogatives? It is disgusting. It is wrong. The victims out there are suffering. We promised them justice, but a lot of them will never see it. I am glad that both inquiries have now opened. We look forward to the Select Committee inquiry, which will go into every nook and cranny. We will, at some stage, discover who initiated this and when. We will discover who allowed this to happen.
The revelation that has emerged about the so-called on-the-runs administrative scheme demonstrates that the previous Government committed a monstrous betrayal of the rights of many of their own citizens. They actively conspired with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, to deny hundreds of UK citizens the prospect of ever seeing justice for their relatives who had been murdered or injured as part of the terrorist campaign waged by the IRA in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain.
If it achieved nothing else, the collapse of the trial of Mr John Downey at least brought into the open the nefarious plot that our own Government had a hand in. It is now time to establish the full and complete truth about this scheme—who started it, who knew about it, and what other agencies were implicated in it. There are now no fewer than four separate inquiries of different natures taking place into this scheme. I welcome each and every one and believe that they can complement each other.
Before we progress to some of the details about this issue, it is worth looking at first principles. When they were elected to office in 1997, the Labour Government headed by Tony Blair vowed to be the most open and transparent Government that the country had ever had. To that end, they introduced, among other things, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which was designed to ensure that, within the limits of data protection and national security, people would be able to scrutinise the work of those who governed them. It is contrary to that commitment to openness and transparency that no Government Minister ever saw fit to come to this House to inform Members of a dirty deal that was going on with Sinn Fein-IRA. It is at variance with the other actions of previous Governments in opening up Government to public accountability that they would keep such an important matter hidden from the scrutiny not only of this House but of Her Majesty’s Opposition and all the Northern Ireland parties—except, of course, Sinn Fein.
This raises an important political point. In Northern Ireland, progress is dependent on the mutual consent of both the major traditions that exist within our community. Despite the fact that there has been a consistent and vast majority in support of the Union throughout the duration of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Unionists recognise the necessity of finding accommodation with those who hold to the minority viewpoint with regard to Ulster’s constitutional position. In that context, the fact that the Government connived behind the backs of the Unionist community to deliver the scheme was bad enough, but their action also represented a betrayal of the constitutional nationalist tradition in Northern Ireland.
The Government acted in a secretive and one-sided fashion because they knew that had the details of this scheme been made public, they would not have been able to carry with them this House or the greater number of people from the Unionist and the nationalist backgrounds in Northern Ireland. They knew that they were doing wrong, and that is why they tried to hide their actions from everyone, except themselves as a Government and Sinn Fein. The Bible says:
“The wicked flee when no man pursueth”,
and that seems apt today. The Government fled from scrutiny but no one pursued because they tried to hide what they were doing—yet this sordid deal could not remain hidden for ever.
The secret scheme whereby one political party submitted names of individuals who were on the run to receive so-called comfort letters was not merely immoral but represented a subversion of justice and made a mockery of the rule of law. When clear and direct questions were asked previously, including of senior Ministers, we were not told about the scheme. For example, in October 2006, when we asked in the House whether such a procedure existed, we were told:
“There is no other procedure.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 290.]
On 1 March 2007, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked
“what measures the Government are considering to deal with ‘on the runs’ other than further legislation or an amnesty.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1462W.]
The right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) replied: “None.” That one-word answer raises a serious question about the veracity of the then Government’s position. It is therefore right to establish whether the House of Commons has been deceived. We need to have the truth.
As I have said, different inquiries are looking into this matter and each complements the other. It is vital that together they exhaustively examine all the relevant information and question all the relevant people. It is now apparent that there were no lengths to which the Blair Administration would not go in the interests of political expediency. Those who carried out some of the most heinous crimes must never be allowed to escape responsibility for the suffering they caused. The victims of those crimes cannot escape their pain and they should have the right to bring the perpetrators to justice. The outcome of the Downey case was morally wrong. No one should be beyond the law.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Although tributes have rightly been paid by Members on both sides of the House to the victims of the Hyde Park bombing in 1982—I add my condolences to those families and friends who lost loved ones—it is right to put it on the record that Mr Downey, who walked out of the Old Bailey, was suspected of involvement in not only the Hyde park bombing but the Enniskillen bombing, in which many people lost their lives and many others were injured, and the murder of two members of the Ulster Defence Regiment who served gallantly in Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I agree wholeheartedly with everything she said. The shadow over this debate is that of not only the Hyde park bombing but every other atrocity that was carried out during the campaign throughout the United Kingdom. There was no justification for the campaign of terror and no justification for the slaughter of the innocent. This House ought to once again unreservedly condemn the actions of the IRA and those who brought sorrow and grief to the United Kingdom for so many years. One thing about the Downey case is that, thankfully, it has exposed all those others who received what they believed to be letters of comfort, and I would suggest that he is probably not their favourite cousin.
I realise that I have to draw my remarks to a close. If someone is on the run, I want them to fear the police, the courts and the rule of law. I want them to fear the fact that one day justice may catch up with them. I can assure them today that if it does not catch up with them here on this earth, they will stand before God, whether they believe in Him or not, and face His judgment and wrath.
In the aftermath of the Downey case judgment, the Secretary of State said:
“We will take whatever steps are necessary to make clear to all recipients of letters arising from the administrative scheme, in a manner that will satisfy the courts and the public, that any letters issued cannot be relied upon to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence becomes available now or later.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 39WS.]
The Democratic Unionist party will insist that the Government follow up those words with concrete action.
Finally, the royal prerogative of mercy has been mentioned. I have lived for the past nearly 50 years in a community that went through the nightmare of terrorism. South Londonderry used to be the killing fields of IRA murders in our Province. I gathered with many widows and many children down those years, as I did with my own family, grieving and sorrowing over the passing of our loved ones. When I hear that the likes of Liam Averill—a murderer in my community—is supposed to have received the royal prerogative of mercy, that is absolutely disgusting. It is laughable in a certain way that the big provo hero crawls to Her Majesty to get a royal prerogative of mercy, but it is also disgusting and sickening. I would like to know who advanced his name and who advised Her Majesty to execute the royal prerogative of mercy for the likes of the murdering thug Liam Averill. I would also like to know the names of the others who received the royal prerogative of mercy, because I can assure the House that there was no mercy from the provos for my family and the other families in Northern Ireland who suffered grief and who to this day continue to suffer heartbreak at the loss of their loved ones.
It is very kind of you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to call me in this very important Back-Bench debate. I am happy to put on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating such an extensive period for it. I am very grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who have taken interventions throughout the debate. I will try to contain my comments to less than 10 minutes, so that those who have been so generous to me have an opportunity to speak at length.
Given that the hon. Lady is an esteemed and very skilled legal expert, will she refer to the possible opportunities that now pertain to try to get someone such as Mr Downey with his experience—an alleged mass murderer—back into our courts, whether by warrant, extradition or whatever?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening so early. That is a really interesting question. My honest and frank answer, as he would expect from the hon. Member for North Down, is that Mr Downey of course resides in Donegal. That is his place of residence and his domicile. Frankly, after the Downey case and its revelations, I have absolutely no confidence that this British Government would request the extradition of Mr Downey. I would love the Secretary of State to intervene now to say that I am completely wrong.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for making that very interesting point, which brings me to a matter that I hope she can resolve later this afternoon. Like many hon. Members, I am really curious about the legal status of all the comfort letters or administrative letters issued to more than 200 cronies, pals or comrades of Gerry Adams. That is what they had to be: they were exclusively republican activists—terrorists—but they were buddies of Mr Adams.
I wrote a letter to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), and I have asked him to clarify some of his replies in early 2007. As I have said, I am very sorry that he is not in the Chamber, but he has explained why he cannot be here. I do not want to criticise him, because when we have disagreed, we have always managed to have a very good working relationship. I will not therefore, in his absence, pick up the questions raised by other hon. Members about his replies in early 2007. Perhaps the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who will wind up for the Opposition, will at some stage try to reconcile the irreconcilable. Before he speaks, perhaps he would take the opportunity to check the replies of the right hon. Member for Neath, which have been quoted by several Members, and try to reconcile them for us, which would be very helpful.
To return to the Secretary of State’s intervention, I tabled a written question to the Attorney-General asking him to rule on the legal status post the Downey case. I had a very courteous reply, as one would expect from the Attorney-General—of course drafted by very efficient civil servants—and it was a perfect parliamentary answer in that it was extremely brief. His reply, dated Monday 24 March, states:
“I have made no assessment. The status of the letters is a matter that may be considered by the right hon. Dame Heather Hallett in her review.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 43W.]
There was discretion for Lady Justice Hallett to look at the status of the letters that had been issued. However, the following day, I learned from an online report by the BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent, Vincent Kearney, that Lady Justice Hallett
“is not expected to reach a conclusion on the specific legal effect of individual letters, or any action taken or not taken as a result of the letter being sent”.
That quotation is from the letters that were exchanged between the director general of the Northern Ireland Office, Julian King, and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.
In the Secretary of State’s intervention, she was clear that there would be an independent decision on whether to issue a request for the extradition of Mr Downey from Donegal. Will she intervene on me and explain who exactly has the remit to tell the people in Northern Ireland, the people in this House and, indeed, the recipients of the more than 100 administrative letters what exactly is the legal status of those letters post-Downey? Have they been rescinded or have they not been rescinded? Do the recipients sleep easy in bed or do they not?
I am happy to reiterate what I have said on a number of occasions over recent weeks. The letters were merely a statement of fact about whether an individual was wanted by the police at that time on the basis of the evidence that was available. They do not confer an amnesty. Nobody who has one should think that it immunises them from prosecution. If the evidence is present now or in the future to justify a prosecution, it will be taken forward.
I am very grateful indeed to the Secretary of State for what I think was a clarification. She said that it is not an amnesty. What exactly is the legal status? Will she also confirm, when she is winding-up—unless she wants to intervene again, of course—that the files remain open? We need an assurance that the files are open and that further evidence is being sought by police services throughout the United Kingdom, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
I would hate to think that the recipients of these comfort letters had had the assurance when they received their letter that their file was closed and nobody was looking for further evidence. I say that with a really heavy heart, because in reading the Downey judgment, it is clear that the Historical Enquiries Team, to which other hon. Members have referred, made inquiries about Mr Downey in relation to offences that had allegedly been committed in Northern Ireland and apparently received a negative response. That is really worrying and troublesome.
Apart from assuring the House that this is not an amnesty, we really need a commitment from the Secretary of State that she will leave this House—at the end of the debate, not now—and ask the Attorney-General about the legal status. Given that Lady Justice Hallett is not going to look at the legal status of individual letters or, indeed, of all the letters, as we know courtesy of the exchange of letters with the director general of the Northern Ireland Office, it is obviously the responsibility of the British Attorney-General to give a clear legal ruling on their status. That is absolutely imperative.
I am sorry that I keep staring at the Secretary of State and encouraging her to intervene as and when she can, but I am doing so quite deliberately. She will know that, after the Downey case, the shock that permeated through this House, across Northern Ireland and across other constituencies in the UK where there have been terrorist bombs was enormous. The vast majority of us had believed before the Downey case that there was the rule of law. This country is held in high esteem around the world because we uphold the rule of law. We now know, post-Downey, that the rule of law did not apply to the comrades of Mr Adams. He asked the then Prime Minister Tony Blair for an invisible process, and that is exactly what he received.
I tabled several questions to the Secretary of State, and I am sorry to say that she gave the same holding reply—the same stock answer. Such stonewalling was most regrettable. Interestingly though, the Secretary of State assured me on several occasions that
“the Prime Minister announced that a judge would be appointed to undertake an independent review to provide a full public account of the operation and extent of the administrative scheme for dealing with so called “on-the-runs”, which will include a factual check of all letters issued.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 207W.]
I emphasise the phrase “all letters issued”. That sentence was repeated in several written answers I received, and I understand that it is repeated on the Downing street website, because it was of course the Prime Minister’s idea to have this independent inquiry. We discovered on Tuesday, courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph, that the exchange of correspondence between the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and the director general of the Northern Ireland Office, Julian King, reveals that Lady Justice Hallett will not look at all the letters, but at a sample. It must be obvious to the Secretary of State that the written answers I received, with the undertaking that “all letters” would be considered, and the clarification by Julian King about a sample, are inconsistent. That inconsistency must be resolved this afternoon.
I tabled a painful question in which I asked the Secretary of State about the two most senior RUC officers who were murdered during the troubles, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan. Their families and John McBurney, the solicitor for one of the families, believe that some of the recipients of these comfort letters are alleged to have been involved in those murders. I ask the Secretary of State to give a firm assurance this afternoon that if the Breen family or the Buchanan family—or any other family of the victims of bombings and other hideous crimes—seek clarification about whether the murderers of their loved ones received one of these tawdry, dreadful, secret, scheming little letters, she will ensure that they get a clear reply, yes or no. That would be enormously helpful.
I wish to associate myself with the remarks made by all hon. Members about those who lost their lives in the Hyde park and Regent park bombings. They were terrible crimes on the day they were committed, and some decades later they remain terrible crimes. It is always difficult to follow Members from Northern Ireland because they speak from such extraordinary personal experience and from personal loss. Sometimes it is really hard for other hon. Members, whatever their convictions, to speak after those who speak from the heart because they experienced the tragedy at home.
Listening to hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am of the view that the need for Justice Hallett’s review is critical, and the Secretary of State is right to expedite it. There are disadvantages in it not being a full, independent judicial review, but we know from Lord Saville that the time it would take to assemble such a review would be extremely damaging, not only to the ongoing political process in Northern Ireland but to the peace process. Indeed, the arguments around that so-called euphemism, “on-the-runs”, are testimony to why I think this review needs to come up with its findings quickly.
I was Secretary of State by a few weeks when the letter was issued to Mr Downey. As such, I take responsibility for my officials in the Northern Ireland Office, and I am happy to do so. They always acted with the most extraordinary integrity, and, as the Attorney-General set out when he spoke to the House a few weeks ago, there is no reason in any shape or form to doubt in any way the wisdom and actions of those officials or civil servants.
It is helpful to put on the record—again, I will co-operate with Justice Hallett however that is desired—that this was an administrative process. I absolutely understand the remarks of right hon. and hon. Members, and their questions about whether it was more than that, but I entirely endorse the view, expressed by the Secretary of State and by my predecessors, that the letters were designed to be statements of fact. They were part of an administrative scheme that, as the Attorney-General said, operated independently of the Government. It was intended to identify those individuals who, although they might believe they were unable to return to the jurisdiction without fear or arrest, would in fact face no prosecution or arrest if they were to return.
It is for Justice Hallett to ascertain whether that was the case, as I believe, but I put it on record that at no point during my tenure—which, I think, was the longest of any Secretary of State in Northern Ireland under the previous Administration—did I have reason to believe that it was ever more than an administrative process. That said, the judgment in the Downey case throws up some important questions that, as Secretary of State for those years, worry me greatly, and I am grateful to Justice Hallett for coming forward on this matter. In particular, paragraph 133 of the judgment makes it clear that:
“The PSNI did not alert the DPP (NI), or anyone else, to the fact that the defendant had been wanted by the Metropolitan Police in relation to the Hyde Park Bombing at the time of the critical correspondence in June/July 2007, or—”
and this should worry all of us—
“to the fact that the defendant was still wanted by the Metropolitan Police in…2008.”
Paragraph 137 states:
“Again, nothing was done to alert the DPP (NI), or anyone else, in relation to the defendant being wanted by the Metropolitan Police in connection with the Hyde Park Bombing.”
Those are very serious issues, and it is right that a judge consider them urgently. What they throw up is not that this was not an administrative process, but that there were clearly serious errors within that process. That throws up the question of when those errors were discovered, what happened to that information, and what course of action followed.
May I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to make it absolutely clear that during his long, and I think successful and happy time in Northern Ireland, the words “Operation Rapid” were not words that he heard, and he did not know about them until he read the Downey judgment? Is that what he is saying to the House?
Dare I say that there is a fashion when former Secretaries of State, as it were, and sometimes even serving Ministers, can sometimes hide behind forms of words? I am not suggesting that to the hon. Lady for a moment. I am not aware that we discussed the words “Operation Rapid”, but it is more than possible that pieces of paper will be found on which that phrase will appear. I say simply to the hon. Lady that it would be disingenuous for me remotely to suggest that I did not know we had an administrative process in order to establish facts. What was absolutely clear to me, by whatever name it was known, is that this was a factual operation, and in no way was the Northern Ireland Office, in any shape or form, at any point in the time I was there, or known to me before or after, interfering in that process. It was a matter of delivering those points of information.
Let me be clear to the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) that, if the letters, in any shape or form, were reprieves or amnesties, I would share the feelings they have set out this afternoon, but at no point was I led to believe, at no point did I believe, and at no point did anybody ever tell me, that the letters could or would be used as reprieves or amnesties. They were statements of fact. I entirely understand hon. Members’ feelings if they believe the letters were anything other than that. They were not designed to be a reprieve or an amnesty. They were designed only as statements of fact to tell those people whether they were or were not wanted.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity. Norman Baxter, who is not a Member of the House, was the PSNI officer in charge of the scheme and is named in the Downey judgment. He gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 11 November 2009. He said:
“One of my responsibilities before I retired was to conduct a review of on-the-runs, that is persons who are outside the jurisdiction. I can assure the Committee that there was an extremely unhealthy interest by officials in the Northern Ireland Office about prioritising individuals who were on the run and about ensuring that they were cleared to return to the North.”
That is not a term I would use, but it is what he said. In fairness to Norman Baxter, who was named and criticised in the Downey judgment, he has put it on the record that pressure was put on him by officials.
It is always dangerous to extrapolate from one person’s words and somebody else’s conclusion. One talks about “an interest”, but the hon. Lady’s refers to it as a “pressure”. All I can say to her is that, if there were questions from the Northern Ireland Office, as far as I am concerned, they could only ever be questions about facts. They could not in any way be about trying to interfere or change the outcome of any inquiry. The Secretary of State should know that, given the now legal status of the letters, the hon. Lady is entirely right to pose that question. It would be grossly misfortunate if the Justice were not to address that question. I remind the House that the situation is about an abuse of process, not just a letter. The entire process, of which the letter is a part, has been thrown up by the judgment.
That throws up the question of whether or not a status is conferred on the letters now—the letters were issued, as we thought, as statements of fact—that takes them beyond statements of fact. That is an issue of confidence. As the Secretary of State considers the debate—I expect her not to reply this afternoon, but to take away many of the considered comments made by right hon. and hon. Members—she should consider that the Downey judgment genuinely throws up the question whether or not letters issued in good faith by Ministers and the Northern Ireland Office as statements of fact are now more than statements of fact. If that is the case, the House deserves to know. It will be very difficult to rebuild confidence, which has been damaged across the process, without answering that question.
I am conscious of the time and do not wish to prevent other hon. Members from speaking. At the end of Justice Hallett’s review, we will have answers to some questions but not all. What will remain are questions of how we deal with some remaining dimensions of the past. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) rightly puts back on the table the issue of the soldiers who were named and effectively indicted through the Saville inquiry. For them, in their old age, terrible worries ensue. Nobody should be above justice and I would never argue that whoever may be involved should be above justice. However, the case throws the issue on to the table once again and the Secretary of State may wish to reconsider it. That does not mean dragging out the discredited 2005 Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, but perhaps we are approaching a point at which it would be sensible to consider a process that allows us to deal quickly and effectively, but only if it is fair, with those individual cases that arise out of dealing with the past of the troubles in Northern Ireland. It is an intolerable situation for those paratroopers to face, as the hon. Member for Aldershot set out so eloquently. It is equally intolerable for those who were victims of the troubles. I am not remotely suggesting that we revive the discredited 2005 Bill, but we know that Northern Ireland needs to move out of the past—not in the sense of forgetting its past, but it needs to move out of the grip of the past where that part of the past is a millstone around its neck.
Not for one moment. The hon. Member for Aldershot was kind and generous enough to say that when I was Secretary of State I always tried to deal with all these issues with impartiality. That does not mean to say that I do not think it is quite proper for right hon. and hon. Members eloquently to make cases on behalf of those they wish to represent. Whatever view Members may have, the House would have to recognise the distinction with which the hon. Gentleman has represented the case of those who were, of course, serving British interests by being soldiers in Northern Ireland at the time. That is not in any way to be a judgment by me on whether they acted in one area or another, appropriately, rightly or wrongly, but it is none the less to recognise the role they played.
I very much hope that the House will find time to debate Justice Hallett’s review when it happens. Perhaps the Secretary of State will confirm that the Government will give Government time for a full day’s debate on that review, because I think it is essential to rebuild the confidence that has been damaged by the errors that were made by the PSNI. It is crucial that the Government are able to re-establish confidence, and that this administrative process to deal with people finding out whether they were wanted or not wanted is restored to its credibility as an administrative scheme, and not some back-handed way of dealing with them in a special high-handed way.
I, like others, welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I thank those responsible for making it happen. I wish to extend my sympathy again, and that of my party, to the relatives and friends of those killed in the Hyde park bombs, and beyond that to all victims and survivors generally. I do not wish to retread all the ground well covered by others, in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan).
My main concern is that we must deal with the real issues raised by the Downey case in a mature and responsible way that does not do any further damage to the potential for political progress in Northern Ireland that is necessary at this time. It is now very clear that serious errors were made in the management of Operation Rapid, and that those errors compromised victims’ rights to justice. The way this process was administered came at the expense of establishing an honest and robust system that could have dealt adequately with any anomalies that were out there in relation to on-the-runs or others. That could have been done in an accountable and transparent manner.
It is in the interests of the public and the victims to provide honesty and clarity on all aspects of the establishment of this so-called administrative scheme. People I have talked to want to know what went on. They want to know how those involved were selected to qualify for a letter and how some others in similar circumstances did not qualify. Indeed, they want to know—Members have referred to this already—why some people needed a royal pardon. Were they wanted for questioning, but did not quite qualify for the letters? There are many unanswered questions, and people out there want answers, because confidence in politics has been damaged and we need to restore it.
We in the SDLP have repeatedly made clear our concerns about the letters and the whole shady process that followed the collapse of the so-called on-the-run Bill in 2006. Many aspects of the process that led to the collapse of the Downey trial remain extremely unclear. Answers must be given about how it all happened, why it happened and who made it happen. I cannot accept—I do not think any of us can—any disingenuous suggestion or bogus claim that somehow, by a system of osmosis, we were all aware of everything that happened after the collapse of that Bill or that we should have been, even though we are told that it had to be secret. They cannot have it both ways. Claims have been cast around and about in some quarters that information was available to those who wanted or needed it. I want to refute that and state clearly and unambiguously that it is totally inaccurate. None of us who was near, around or about politics at the time was aware of the size and shape of the problem. We certainly knew there was an issue with on-the-runs—a concern, a problem, an anomaly—but nobody knew what was going on in the undergrowth.
This whole process has defied the public’s most basic political expectations of openness, transparency and good governance. It comes as little surprise to me, and should come as little surprise to anybody else, that so much stress has been caused since this shady process began to unravel. I hope that the review led by Justice Hallett will begin to shed some light on how the process was so appallingly badly handled. As a member of the Northern Ireland Committee, I will be doing all I can to pursue the truth—the whole truth—through the inquiries that have been set up. We have a responsibility to investigate, but, I believe—and I would urge others to do so—in a responsible manner. As far as I am concerned, there is no room for political manoeuvring or grandstanding. We need to use the opportunities afforded to us to address concerns properly and answer the questions of victims, survivors and their families, who are vulnerable and at the receiving end of this whole affair.
In Northern Ireland, victims issues are deeply sensitive. There must always be empathy, respect and sensitivity given to victims, most of whom have suffered in silence for many years. Neither empathy, respect nor sensitivity has been evident in the Downey case or the manner in which it has been handled. It is my view that victims and survivors are our first priority and should never be made to feel that they are being treated as an irritation or a problem that can be wished away in the interest of political expediency. We in the SDLP will try to treat victims with respect at all times. Any process that we support to deal with the past will have victims at the centre and be keenly sensitive to their concerns. For many victims, the Downey case has confirmed their worst fears and further undermined their lack of confidence in the whole process of truth, justice and reconciliation.
Let me turn for a couple of moments to the Haass process and the future, which is as important as the past. Like others, I am concerned to ensure that we do not allow ourselves to be prisoners of the past, yet at the same time we have to deal with the hangover and the problems of the past. Some have already tried to use the Downey case as an excuse to walk away from the party leaders’ negotiations that followed the Haass discussions. We cannot let this episode become an excuse to do any further damage or walk away from the negotiating table that Richard Haass helped to create. The aftermath of the Haass process is still in effect today and continues as leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland are meeting. We are dealing with the very real challenges of the past, parading and flags. Those challenges are still with us. They have been there a long time and will remain for as long as we fail to face up to them.
Individual politicians and political parties have little right to keep complaining about issues if they refuse to take responsibility or commit to finding solutions to major problems.
Through the Haass process, we arrived at a number of positive options and concrete solutions to many of the difficult challenges that face us, especially when it comes to dealing with our past. Lord Eames said last week that issues relating to the past, parading and flags were all intertwined, and that if we solved one of them, we would begin to solve the others as well. It is essential for all of us in Northern Ireland to do all that we can to reach honourable compromises on all these issues. We cannot let the Downey case be used as an excuse for not dealing with the past; indeed, it seems to me to demonstrate the very reason why we must actively, honestly and honourably deal with the past and get to grips with it. It provides us with the impetus that will enable us to get our feet firmly back under the negotiating table and make the hard yards on the hardest of problems. It is unfortunate that the Ulster Unionist party has signalled its intention to detach itself from those negotiations.
We need honest engagement and honourable compromise, now and in the future, more than ever before. The problems that we have out there will not go away until we face them in a mature and honest way. The Downey issue is a perfect illustration of the fact that, while covert side deals and shabby quick fixes can be used for short-term purposes, they are very damaging in the long term. What we badly need are honest, open and transparent discussions with honourable conclusions.
During our efforts in the peace process over the last 20 years, we have benefited from an enormous amount of good will throughout the world. We must not squander that by failing to take on the hard issues that will allow us to finish the job and define a better future for Northern Ireland. I recently spent a week in Washington and New York, and was heartened to hear President Obama and Vice-President Biden echo the words spoken by ex-President Clinton during his recent visit to Derry. They said “Finish the job, finish the job”, and I appeal to all to help us to do that.
I, too, welcome the fact that we are debating this important issue. Although the debate has been dominated by Northern Ireland Members, I believe that the issue should concern not just politicians from Northern Ireland, but every Member of the House. At the beginning of his speech—it was a very forensic speech, which should be welcomed—the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) almost apologised for being involved in the debate, but I believe that he as much as anyone else should be concerned about the issues arising from the Downey case.
The whole matter has been brought to the fore by the hurt caused not to people in Northern Ireland, but to people in this very city who were blown apart by an IRA bomb, and, of course, to many others. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) mentioned many constituents who had served in the Army, and also the IRA bombs that had hurt people in his constituency. This is an issue that affects Members throughout the House, because people in their constituencies, including people in this part of the United Kingdom, have been affected by the activities of those who received the amnesty letters—for that is what they are, however the Secretary of State wishes to describe them.
A second reason why all Members should be concerned is the fact that the House of Commons has been brought into disrepute. I believe that not just the last Government but the current Government have been sullied by the scheme whose outcome we saw in the recent court case. It calls into question whether the public can trust the words of those who want and ask for the responsibility of governing the country. Numerous assurances were given in the House: Members were told that the issue had to be addressed, and that when it was addressed, people would know about it. The hon. Member for Aldershot, who is no longer in the Chamber, was the only Member to suggest today that perhaps we should have known—that the information might have been there, but we had missed it. He said “We are busy people, we get e-mails and so forth”. He also quoted what had been said by the then Secretary of State, Dr Reid, in answer to a question. Dr Reid also said at that time that
“we have committed ourselves to resolving this issue but have not decided how it will be resolved”,
“When we have reached a conclusion, we will of course come back to the House.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 253.]
That did not happen.
One conclusion that was reached, of course, was to introduce the on-the-runs legislation. On at least two occasions after that was withdrawn, the then Secretary of State indicated, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), that he had no alternative proposal, despite the fact that the scheme was put in place not long afterwards.
I want to make something clear. I have listened carefully to what the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) said. He stated, “This was purely an administrative scheme.” I have also served in a Government Department in Northern Ireland, and the one thing I can assure the House of is that no official, off their own bat, would start an administrative scheme as sensitive as this one, with all its political ramifications, without clear political direction and political origin. It may have eventually taken on an administrative life, but it started off with a conscious decision by politicians. They were politicians who had promised that when they came to address the issue, the facts would be known to the House and—as Dr Reid said, because he realised how sensitive the issue was—to the victims. Promises were, therefore, broken.
One reason why this debate is important is that it is about confidence in this House and in the word of politicians. The Labour party was then in government, and I have listened closely to what the shadow Secretary of State has said. When he was interviewed about the matter, he talked about it having caused hurt but said—I am quoting him almost exactly—that he did not believe the Labour party had anything to apologise for. I believe it does have something to apologise for. It must apologise first to those families who now know they will never get justice because of the double jeopardy rule. It owes an apology as well to those members of the public who have been misled by promises made by successive Secretaries of State in this House, and it also owes an apology to Members of this House.
The current Government cannot escape their responsibility either. When the new Administration took over, seamlessly, there was no indication that they had inherited an administrative scheme which had trundled on. Indeed, the Secretary of State still insists that the letters are virtually meaningless. If they are virtually meaningless, why are they so important to the peace process? If they are virtually meaningless, why did Sinn Fein send scores of names to the Northern Ireland Office to get meaningless bits of paper, and why do those who received those meaningless bits of paper now feel quite happy not to be on the run any more, but to enter the United Kingdom? It just does not add up.
The Secretary of State argues that the letters are meaningless because of what may happen if new evidence comes to light. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has pointed out, we are not clear whether that is evidence on existing cases or evidence only on new cases, but this applies only if new evidence comes to light. Given the information that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has provided to the House today, we know that already there are not just connections or contacts between the Northern Ireland Office and those who would be investigating, but, as Norman Baxter said, there is extremely grave interference in the process.
We have to ask: what instructions are being given to the police? What instructions are being given to the Historical Enquiries Team? It could be, “That person has received a letter, so do not be following any new lines of inquiry, do not be opening any new cases and do not be looking any further at any allegations made about them.” I do not know whether the inquiry’s remit will cover finding out whether any of those who have received such letters have subsequently had any investigation into their cases by the HET. It would be interesting to know that, but I suspect that the answer is no. The Secretary of State may say, “If new evidence comes to light, these letters will not mean anything”, but of course if it can be ensured that no new evidence comes to light, the letters do amount to an amnesty.
If we want an indication that that might be the case, let us examine the case presented by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea)—that of Liam Averill. Why could Liam Averill not benefit from the scheme? It was because the evidence was already there—he had been serving a prison sentence. He had escaped from prison and a letter was no use to him, so he had to have the royal prerogative of mercy. If any indication were needed that the letters amount to an amnesty—to a certainty that someone will not go to jail—we need only look at the case of Liam Averill, the way in which the assurances have been given by the Secretary of State and the evidence given by the police of the interference by the Northern Ireland Office in these cases.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman’s flow. He and I both served for many years on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and I remember the evidence of Norman Baxter well. May I gently suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he may have slightly heard something in the evidence that the rest of us did not hear, for the words he quoted this afternoon were rather stronger, more specific and, dare I say it, more accusatory than the words I heard? May I simply ask that he look at the transcript of that evidence again?
The transcript states three words, “extremely unhealthy interest”, which I do not think anyone, unless they really wanted to, could interpret differently. Such an interest in these cases would indicate that there was interference by the NIO. An “extremely unhealthy interest” cannot mean anything else. If the interest was “unhealthy”, it surely means that the NIO was seeking to direct the inquiry in a way that a policeman felt was not right. If it was “extremely unhealthy,” it was overbearing—that is how I reach my conclusion and I do not think I am reading anything into it. I am coming to a conclusion that is borne out by the facts, one which people must come to if they are to believe that the letters mean anything.
The one thing I do know is that Sinn Fein would not have been happy with the letters if they did not mean something. I can recall around the time of the on-the-runs sitting in studios with Sinn Fein spokesmen who, without the least bit of irony, bleated on and lamented about all these poor people who were separated from their families and could not come home to see their grannies, mummies, sons and daughters because they were on the run. There was no sense of irony arising from the fact that they were on the run because they had permanently separated many people from their families by killing them. If anyone suggests that they would have been happy with a letter that did not remedy that situation, I would say that their argument is extremely weak.
This is an important issue because, by implicating the police, it has undermined the rule of law. I know that the hon. Member for Aldershot tried to put the blame totally on the police in Northern Ireland by saying that they screwed up, and that had they not screwed up this would not have happened, but I believe that it would have happened anyhow. As has been shown in the court judgment, the letter was as important as the information that was contained in it.
The police have been implicated, because they have had to produce the information. I do not know how much direction the police were given, but I would have expected them, knowing the implications of this, to have felt obliged to tell the Policing Board. Yet, anyone hearing the police when they gave evidence to the Policing Board—this was not some constable, sergeant or inspector who might not have been passed all the issues, but an assistant chief constable—could not have concluded anything other than that the police were pursuing these cases. With regard to the on-the-runs, he said.
“There is then an investigation which follows into the individual and the crimes that they may have been involved in, and then this is subsequently reported to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) where test for prosecution is met. We have been working through this process over the last number of years and it continues still to be available. So in effect, as we become aware of a name in a particular incident, we carry out a cold case review and an investigation and report that to the PPS to see then if the test for prosecution is met or any other work that may be done. The powers of arrest will exist for the original offences and there can also be Bench Warrants applied to through the courts if needs be, or if it is in relation to offences in respect of breaking out of a prison, the Prison Act also applies in respect of returning people to prison.”
That was the substance of the evidence that the police gave. There was no indication that there were some individuals for whom letters were being signed so that they could walk free—so that they could come into the jurisdiction and be sure that there would be no prosecution against them.
The rule of law and the integrity of the police—shame on those in the senior ranks who allowed themselves to be associated with this—is at stake. Many individuals in Northern Ireland are saying, “Look, I break the law, I am rightly pursued. Every avenue is used against me.” Yet here we have people who, in some cases, are guilty of mass murder walking free. For all those reasons, I believe that this has been an important debate and that the inquiry is an important inquiry. I hope that we will get to the truth of the matter about who has got these letters, whether or not investigations are still going on, whether the Northern Ireland Office is interfering in any way and stopping investigations or new leads being followed and what the implications are for the judicial process.
Let me make one last point, and then I will finish. If the Government are as appalled by this situation as they suggest—the Secretary of State has said that the letters mean nothing and it will be made clear—why did they not, once they became aware of the scheme, make the situation quite clear to the Justice Minister at least? When policing and justice were being handed over in Northern Ireland, it was kept quiet from him. Why, when there are opportunities to appeal this decision, have they not appealed? I believe that the current Government are as much a part of the political cover-up and are giving as much political cover to Sinn Fein-IRA as the previous Government did. That is why the incident is a shameful one and it merits this debate today.
I take the Floor greatly honoured to take part in the debate. I am always proud to represent my constituency in what is often called the greatest seat of democracy in the world, but today I have no pride in what has happened. I stand ashamed to learn what has been done by the previous Government and continued by the present Government.
I stood in this House in 2012 and raised the issue of why there had been no prosecution of Gerry McMonagle who, despite the overwhelming evidence, has never been tried for his crimes despite coming into Northern Ireland many times over the past number of years. As a result of what has happened in the past few months, I believe I know the reason.
In the Adjournment debate in this House at that time on the subject of Lexie Cummings, attended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the shadow Secretary of State, I said:
“The family visit the grave of a true gentleman, Lexie Cummings, with questions in their minds and grief in their hearts. Who can answer their questions and give them closure? Questions must be answered, because the family cannot forget that Lexie Cummings was a good man and worthy of justice. They know that for a reason unknown to them, someone has seen fit to give an unrepentant republican murderer the opportunity to parade around, with no fear of justice, in his mayoral robes. That is cruelty in the extreme, and I am here today to ask for parity in the help provided to that family and others so that they can have closure“.
They deserve closure. I also said:
“It was an open-and-shut case, and yet questions must be answered. Why did William Gerard McMonagle not stand trial for the murder of Lexie Cummings? How was it that William Gerard McMonagle was allowed to travel across the border to safety and freedom, and to begin a new life, which has led to him being the mayor of Letterkenny today? Why was he never extradited, when it was known where he was? Why was there no co-operation between the Garda Siochana and the RUC to bring McMonagle to justice?”—[Official Report, 7 March 2012; Vol. 541, c. 980-81.]
Let me outline the case. In 1982, McMonagle was summoned to court to answer to the murder of Lexie Cummings. There was a mistake in the summons, and in the time that it took the RUC to get it corrected and bring it back, he walked out of court, walked across the border and never came back. I drew attention to the matter during my Adjournment debate in 2012 and also had an opportunity to speak to my colleague, Jonathan Craig, a Member of the Legislative Assembly who is also a member of the Policing Board. I asked him to make inquiries on my behalf. I believe that there is an evidential case to be answered by this gentleman for what he did and for the murder of Lexie Cummings.
I want to know why that happened, and what steps have been taken. It would be great to get an answer from the Secretary of State, because the former Minister of State answered in a non-committal way on that night, as some Members will remember. I believe that it was all down to a dirty backroom deal that began under Blair but was perpetuated by this Government. It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to say that, but that is the way I see it. It was a deal in which unrepentant terrorist murderers were offered amnesty and even a royal pardon from the very royal family that they despised and wanted to kill—and, indeed, did kill in the case of Lord Mountbatten.
That is a bitter pill to swallow when I think of how proud people in Northern Ireland are to see their Queen and of the Jubilee visits during which Protestants and Catholics lined up for hours to catch a glimpse and show their respect. These men had vowed to destroy the monarchy and yet were more than pleased to get their hands on a royal prerogative pardon as facilitated by the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State to wash away the repercussions of their disgusting crimes.
It is interesting that the said Liam Averill, who got the royal pardon, was back in court in Londonderry just a month ago, not for any of his crimes under the Terrorism Acts, but for charges related to drinking and driving a vehicle under the influence. The judge on the bench fined him £200, but of course he said he did not have £200. The judge said, “How much have you in your pocket?” He said, “I have £30.” “Right, I will change the £200 to £30.” Is that justice?
It most definitely is not, and everyone in this House would endorse that. It is an example of more salt being put in people’s wounds
There can be no earthly action that can ever wash away this guilt. I am also heartened that in the next world these people will answer for their crimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) mentioned earlier.
Sympathies given by a Minister of State about the deaths mean less than nothing to the families of my cousin Kenneth Smyth, murdered by the IRA on 10 September 1970, and Lexie Cummings. They are an insult to their memories and the memories of all the men and women who had their lives snatched away from them by murderers who were then hidden and protected by this Government and the previous Government. Is this democracy? No. Is this moral? No. Is this simply abhorrent and downright wrong? Yes it is. There can be no whataboutery and no justifications or explanations that can satisfy. Apologies have been heard, but they do not make black to be white, wrong to be right, or broken hearts to be mended. Do they rebuild trust? No, they do not do that, either.
In a question to the then Secretary of State in 2011 about the Historical Enquiries Team, I asked:
“The concern is that the investigations might not have been thorough, so does the Secretary of State accept that confidence needs to be instilled in the Unionist community”?—[Official Report, 30 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 919.]
It is little wonder that the then Secretary of State would not agree, because they knew what had happened and what continued to happen on their watch, and they knew that it would not inspire confidence.
You can understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, why we on this side of the House and in this party—and I specifically—have concerns about how the Government have handled the matter. I look forward to the Secretary of State’s response; I hope she can take our points of view on board. I am deeply interested to hear how she will answer them and we look forward to that.
I want to mention a couple of other incidents, because I cannot let this occasion pass without mentioning them. There was the atrocity at La Mon hotel when many people were burnt alive—it is in my constituency. It has been intimated that some of those involved in that have risen to high positions, either in Northern Ireland’s jurisdiction or perhaps in jurisdictions elsewhere, in the Republic of Ireland. Do they have a paper of absolution that lets them get away with what they have done in the past? On behalf of the people in La Mon, I would certainly like to get more details about who has had absolution and how that has worked.
I also think of Ballydugan, where four Ulster Defence Regiment men were murdered. I knew three of those young UDR men personally. Eight people were arrested; they were questioned and then let out. Again, perhaps the Secretary of State can give us some indication of whether any of those eight people had papers of absolution or the “get out of jail free” card. If they had, I will certainly be asking for a re-investigation to be done in relation to them.
As a result of this extremely good debate this afternoon, I hope that those people with letters will get the message: they have not got a “get out of jail free” card. They have not got an amnesty, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland will now be turning its attention to investigating them and finding them.
That is exactly what I want to hear from the Secretary of State. I look forward to hearing that that is going to be the case.
The fact is now that not only have the Unionist people no confidence in the dealings of the Government, but the right-thinking moral nationalists are also disgusted by the revelations about the on-the-runs. Let me be rightly understood here: this is not simply an affront to one community but an affront to democracy and justice, and it will take some time for the people of Northern Ireland—whether man or woman, old or young, rich or poor, Protestant or Catholic—to ever again look without much suspicion on the actions of a Government who will take on terrorists on foreign shores, while protecting unrepentant terrorists on their own soil.
I hope that since 2010 Members will have recognised that I have tried in this House always to be very balanced. I have striven to look on the bright side in everything I do, as I do with my constituents as well, and I always attempt not to be too harsh in my comments. There is no bright side in this issue—just shady deals in back rooms. I cannot leave the debate with my usual hope and optimism that something can be done to make things better. Although the Secretary of State has tried to assure us that the letters cannot now be used as a “get out of jail free” card, will that restore confidence? There is a judicial review, but will that restore trust?
I have no plan or quick fix. Only openness and transparency will rebuild what has been destroyed because of what has taken place in the last few months. Many of my constituents have said to me, “I fear what else has been agreed behind our back.” If there is more bad news to come, Secretary of State, we need to know what that is going to be and whether there are any other shady deals that the previous Government have done and that this Secretary of State and the Government are carrying on.
I ask for the truth. The truth has to be heard here today. What I will always think of through this episode is the dirty dealing that rocked a nation and robbed trust in the very principles of democracy and freedom. That is how we feel about it.
The time has come to hold all the terrorists and murderers to account for their actions over the past 40 years, which they might think they have got away with. I believe that, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, it is up to the Secretary of State and this Government to make them accountable for their crimes, to do away with their bits of white paper and to put them in jail and let them rot there for the rest of their lives.
This is a sombre and sobering occasion. There are few occasions in this House when words are insufficient to describe the depth and strength of emotion that runs through a debate—today’s was more a threnody than a debate—and this was one such occasion. May I, like all Members who have spoken, place on the record my deepest sympathies, and those of my party, for the victims of the Hyde park and Regent’s park bombings in 1982? Their names have been read out twice today. Their names will live for ever more. We will remember them.
May I also, as has been the convention this afternoon, praise the Backbench Business Committee and the Northern Ireland Members who made it their business to lobby for this debate on the Floor of the House? If anyone doubts for a moment how raw the emotions still are or how relevant these issues remain, they will be disabused of such notions when they hear what we have heard this afternoon. I apologise for the fact that my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State was unable to stay for the whole debate; there is a funeral today that he and other Members wished to attend.
In many ways we heard two debates this afternoon. On the one hand, we heard a legalistic argument about the legal consequence of this administrative process. I should put on the record the fact that, as the shadow Secretary of State stated in his letter to the Belfast Telegraph earlier this month, our party does not recant the introduction of the on-the-run administration. We say that despite the fact that “understandable anger”, and indeed fury, has been expressed at the subsequent error in the Downey case. I think that it is important to place on the record my hon. Friend’s words when he offered an unequivocal apology for the catastrophic error made in the issuing of the letter to John Downey:
“This has once again accentuated the pain for the families which never goes away and reduces the likelihood of them ever getting truth or justice.”
I cannot add to those points.
Are we to understand that the Labour party is blaming the PSNI for that catastrophic error and, in fact, commending the political decision made by Mr Blair and carried through by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and subsequently by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), that it is a good and defensible position that the on-the-runs, the pals of Mr Gerry Adams who are accused of the most appalling crimes committed in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom, have walked free? Is that the Opposition’s position?
The hon. Lady appears to be conflating two separate issues. To say that the Labour party, which was in government at the time, does not recant its position with regard to the administrative system in no way implies that people are walking free. People are not walking free. There has been no amnesty. It is crucial that we analyse and use the word “amnesty” with care. The hon. Lady, who is one of the most distinguished educators in Northern Ireland, is exact and precise about the etymology of the words she uses, but the word “amnesty” comes from the Greek word “amnestis”, which simply means forgetfulness—it has the same root as “amnesia”. In the context in which we are using it this afternoon—to mean a potential overlooking—it was so used only in the 16th century.
One of the things that we need to discover—I am sure that the Secretary of State will respond to this when she replies—is whether in the abuse of process there was a creative precedent or any sort of legality that arose from that. It is important, in view of the context and the great significance of this subject, that we are very precise in our language. The Secretary of State has said that there is no amnesty. We need to be precise about that and must certainly return to it.
In response to the hon. Lady’s suggestion, no, I am not seeking to blame the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and nor would I. I hope that she and they will accept my assertion of that fact.
If this was an honourable scheme or system, why was it devised behind the backs of the people of Northern Ireland, the politicians of Northern Ireland, and Members of this House; and why did only the friends of Gerry Adams get these letters, why was no loyalist included, and why did no soldier receive any letter of comfort?
Let me say, not for the first time, that I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s personal pain, which is felt by everyone in this House. He deserves considerable respect for the courage he has shown in continuing to raise these issues despite such pain.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman is similar to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) when she asked me about reconciling the irreconcilable in connection with the previously quoted comments by the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain). In other words, on the Floor of the House this afternoon I cannot answer the question on the basis of the information that I have been given and of which we are aware. That is partly why the three inquiries are under way, and I hope that they will achieve results. I was not privy to the discussions at the time. My right hon. Friend was, and he has already made a statement. I have made a note in response to the hon. Lady’s extremely potent expression about reconciling the irreconcilable, and I will ask him for the answer, but I regret that I cannot give it on the Floor of the House this afternoon.
The shadow Minister will have heard me outline a case in which there is clear evidence that should be taken on board in convicting and taking to court a gentleman now residing in the Republic who carried out a murder in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman feel, as I do, and as many of us in this House do, that where there is evidence there should be an investigation, that there should be no amnesty for anybody as long as the evidence is there, and if the case has not been tried before the courts, it is time that it was?
Let me say this unequivocally: absolutely, that is the law. Where there is evidence of criminality, the law must run its course. If the person is living in a foreign jurisdiction, that is an issue we have to consider. I regret the use of the expression “get out of jail free” card. No one is walking around with that in their pocket; that is not the case. I hope that these matters will come out when the House gets to consider the various reports, certainly the review led by Lady Justice Hallett.
While there are the issues of legality and fine points of law, the one thing that most people reading Hansard or listening to the debate would be struck by is the immense courage and bravery of many of the speakers who have, from their personal experience, expressed their views. I particularly praise the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for refusing to allow himself or his party to go down the nihilistic road of destruction and tear down the structures because of this issue. That is a courageous statement that would not be massively popular with every single element in his constituency, and he deserves praise and credit, as does his party, for making it.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said—I think that this resonates with many of us, and I will never forget it—that the matter we are discussing today has undermined the peace process, not underpinned it. It is that serious. We have to realise that this is not a minor administrative issue; it is a major point that has to be considered in depth, and I very much hope that the three inquiries will do so.
I want to leave time for the Secretary of State to respond to those points. As the Prime Minister said, this is not the time to unpick the peace process. It is not the time to say, simply and in the name of expediency, that everything that has gone before should be forgotten. It cannot. We have heard from many speakers today how painful, raw and fresh the wounds still are. We cannot forget. We have to analyse and discover what went wrong, and we have to be open and honest about it. The fact that the current First Minister and Justice Minister were not privy to all the decisions is profoundly regrettable. I say no more than that, but I am sure the House will appreciate how much of an understatement that truly is.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) for his contribution, which was extremely frank, open and helpful, and I very much hope that he will be involved in the various inquiries.
We have spent this afternoon talking above all about a time of great darkness when things happened that we regret. Every single one of us must bend every bone and strain every sinew to ensure that if we achieve nothing else in this House, it will be a move forward from that darkness into the light, where we can be open, honest and transparent, and where there is a better future for the people of that very brave part of the United Kingdom, because, frankly, they deserve no less than that.
With that in mind, I support the inquiries. I am very grateful for today’s contributions and apologise for not being able to respond in detail to some of the points that have been made. However, I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath will respond—I can assure the House of that—and profoundly hope that when this matter is again ventilated on the Floor of the House we will have more information.
My hon. Friend says that, in the interests of truth, he will ask the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) to address the answers he gave saying that there was no scheme. At the time the right hon. Gentleman announced the withdrawal of the Bill, he said he would have to come back to the issue. That did not necessarily mean that he would come back to it in the House, but he did say that it would have to be addressed through other means. That is one of the reasons why some of us asked at subsequent talks, “What is happening about the on-the-runs?”, but we were basically told, “Shut up about it, because nobody else is worrying.”
If I have learned one thing in my life, it is that such language should not be used when speaking to people such as my hon. Friend or to any Member of this House, least of all Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies. I will certainly carry that message back. I think that the point my hon. Friend made earlier about precedent is one to which we will return, because it is of profound concern. If this document had no legal standing, did it create a precedent?
This has been a sombre and sober occasion. It is appropriate that we have been discussing matters of great moment this afternoon. I profoundly hope that the occasions on which we have to have such debates become fewer and fewer. May I thank all 15 hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed to this debate? Nothing that has been said on the Floor of the House this afternoon has been less than greatly impressive. It demands attention and will be acted upon.
I start by thanking the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for moving the motion with such a powerful and eloquent speech in opening a debate of outstanding quality. I pay tribute to all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part. Their contributions were authoritative, fluent and heartfelt.
I welcome a theme that has run through many of the speeches today—that despite the solemnity of this occasion and grave concern about the OTR scheme, we should still recognise the tremendous progress that has been made in Northern Ireland in the past 20 years, much of which is attributable to the Members who have taken part in this debate. That theme of optimism despite the setback of the OTR scheme was reflected in the words of the right hon. Gentleman, and those of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and many others.
Before I respond to the points made in the debate, I want to join in the tributes to the victims of the Hyde park atrocity. We have heard their names, and I want to read them out again—Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young and Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright. They all lost their lives in one of the most brutal atrocities of the long years of the troubles.
Today, I want to acknowledge once again the deep sense of anger felt by so many people, not least in this House, about the judgment in the trial of John Downey and about the OTR scheme. I am sure that that anger and distress are felt most directly by the families of those who lost their lives in the Hyde park atrocity in 1982, and I want to reiterate my condolences to them. One can only imagine the depth of the pain caused by seeing the man accused of the crime walk free from court. But I know that this sense of anger has been felt more widely by other victims of terrorism who have never seen those who murdered their loved ones brought to justice, and many of whom I have met directly. I therefore want to reiterate today what I said in Belfast two weeks ago, which is that the Government are profoundly sorry for what happened in the Downey case, for reviving painful memories and for putting so many victims through the agonies of loss once again.
Turning to the questions asked by hon. Members, the scheme of which John Downey’s letter formed a part was established by the previous Government in 2000, as we have heard. It was accelerated following the rejection of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill in early 2006. That was the vehicle by which the previous Government had sought to give effect to commitments they had made at Weston Park in 2001.
The scheme mainly operated in this way. Sinn Fein submitted a list of individuals who believed that if they returned to the UK, they might be arrested by the police in connection with terrorist offences committed before the 1998 Belfast agreement. The names were then checked by the police, and in some cases by the Public Prosecution Service. If that checking process concluded that the lack of evidence available at the time meant that there was no realistic prospect of a successful prosecution, the individuals concerned were in most cases informed that they were no longer wanted by police in a letter signed by a Northern Ireland Office official.
Since the Downey case, the NIO has been engaged in an intensive exercise to reconcile the different information held by the NIO, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein to establish the actual numbers dealt with under the scheme. That work has revealed the following provisional information: NIO records indicate that 207 names were provided by Sinn Fein or by solicitors acting on their behalf, while a further 10 names were identified by the Prison Service of Northern Ireland and four by the Irish Government, bringing the total to 221 names.
I intervene to make two points. First, will the Secretary of State explain how on earth the Prison Service of Northern Ireland was in possession of information indicating that certain people were on the run and was therefore in a position to pass on that information to the scheme? Secondly, I am sure that she would like to take this opportunity to extend her condolences in relation to those who lost their lives in Enniskillen and in relation to the two UDR men who were allegedly killed by Mr Downey, who left the Old Bailey free at the end of February.
I of course extend my condolences to the relatives of those who lost their lives in the Enniskillen attack and, indeed, to all others who have suffered at the hands of terrorists, both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
The role of the Prison Service, along with other matters, is for the Hallett inquiry to consider. My understanding is that the connection with the Prison Service is that the individuals had absconded from prison and the Prison Service wished to know whether they were still wanted.
The PSNI’s records show that it received a further seven names that do not appear to have been passed to the NIO for consideration. As far as the NIO can establish at this point, the total number of cases in which the eventual outcome was an indication that the individual concerned was not wanted by the police appears to be at least 187, but the complexity in the way the process operated means that the full confirmed facts can be established only once the Hallett report has been published.
The process of reconciling the numbers has indicated that, within the totals that I have set out, 45 individuals had their cases considered under the current Government and that three of those names were passed by the PSNI to NIO officials during this Parliament. In 12 of the cases considered by the current Government, individuals were sent letters by the NIO stating that, on the basis of current evidence, they were not wanted by the police. No letters have been issued by the NIO since December 2012 and, as far as the Government are concerned, the scheme is over.
The outcome of the Downey case has led many to believe that the letters that were sent under the scheme amount to an amnesty from prosecution. That point was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Tewkesbury and for Amber Valley, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others.
Would the Secretary of State like to confirm on the record, in today’s Hansard, whether William Gerard McMonagle is one of the people who has a white paper that gives him absolution and that he will not be made accountable for his crime of killing Lexie Cummings? If the evidence is there but he has never been before a court, does she agree that he should be brought before one?
On the status of the letters, when the Attorney-General spoke in the House on 26 February, in column 265 of Hansard, he said:
“Neither I nor the CPS were prepared to accept that the letter and the circumstances in which it had been given were such as to automatically prevent Mr Downey’s prosecution.”—[Official Report, 26 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 265.]
Was the Secretary of State or the NIO asked to make that representation to the Attorney-General, because somebody seems to have made that case to him?
The prosecuting authorities make their decisions independently of Government.
I want to reiterate to the House unequivocally that the letters do not confer an amnesty. Nobody who holds one of these letters should be in any doubt: they will not protect you from arrest or prosecution if the police can gather sufficient evidence against you; they are not an exemption, immunity or amnesty, which is something that could only ever be granted by Parliament; they are not “get out of jail free” cards.
It is very generous of the Secretary of State to give way and I do appreciate it. Will she please explain to the House, if one of these letters is not an amnesty and it does not represent immunity from prosecution, why on earth the coalition Government continued with this ghastly, immoral scheme in 2010 when they took over No. 10? Why did they not just let the normal criminal process run its course if it did not provide immunity and it was not a pardon for those who were on the run?
I can only reiterate to the hon. Lady that the letters did not confer an amnesty or immunity. If they had, the current Government would have stopped the scheme immediately on coming to office. All the letters amounted to was a statement of fact regarding an individual’s status at the time in connection with the police and the prosecuting authorities. If the facts change and the evidential test is met, the individual concerned will be subject to due process just like anybody else. When the Government took office and were made aware of the arrangements, we allowed the checking process to continue on that basis. By that stage, it was coming towards its end. In the case of John Downey, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, has made clear, it was not the fact of John Downey having a letter that led the judge to stay the prosecution. It was the fact that the letter contained factually incorrect and misleading information, on which Mr Downey relied, that led the judge to rule that an abuse of process had taken place. Mr Downey should never have been sent a letter saying that he was not wanted because at all relevant times he was wanted by the Metropolitan police in connection with the Hyde park bombing.
Several hon. Members have raised concerns about the fact that the CPS decided not to appeal in the Downey case. As the House heard from the Attorney-General, careful consideration was given to whether an appeal should take place, but the CPS concluded that such an appeal would have no realistic prospect of success, and that is why it decided not to go ahead with one.
Recognising the severe concerns expressed in the Chamber and further afield—including by the First Minister, the Justice Minister and many victims’ groups—about the OTR scheme, the Prime Minister responded swiftly by establishing a judge-led inquiry into the scheme. As we have heard today, that inquiry will be chaired by an eminent judge from the Court of Appeal, Lady Justice Hallett. The terms of reference require the provision of a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme, to establish whether other mistakes were made and to make recommendations. I assure the House that it will be a meaningful, exacting and rigorous process to get to the truth of what happened and to provide the answers for which the public are calling.
When the Prime Minister spoke about the inquiry, he said that the eminent judge would review all the letters. It now seems to be some of the letters. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister’s statement takes precedence and that all the letters will be reviewed by the eminent judge?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It was of course also raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). Let me be clear: Justice Hallett is free to look at all the documents that the Government have and at all the cases. The exchange of correspondence to which the hon. Lady referred was designed to provide an assurance that, because of the limited time available, the judge was not required to conduct a detailed examination of every single case and that it was acceptable to focus on cases in which initial checks indicated there was a problem, as well as a sample of others. Inevitably, when we seek answers in a limited time frame, so that we get the answers we need, there are practical limitations on what the judge may be able to do. But I am very clear that she will be allowed to do exactly what she wants to do in relation to any one of those cases. I am sure that she will also look generally at the cases across the board.
Dame Heather indicated in a statement today that she will seek to establish the facts and, where necessary, accountability in relation to what happened, to find out who was and is responsible for what happened with the OTR scheme. I expect the judge’s report to be provided to me by the end of May, or by the end of June if the May deadline proves to be impractical. As hon. Members have pointed out—not least the right hon. Member for Belfast North in his opening speech—several inquiries are under way to get to the truth of what happened, including by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Justice Committee and the police ombudsman.
I agree with a number of the comments made this afternoon, including by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), that in many ways these inquiries can be complementary and can combine to reveal the full truth of what has happened.
My understanding of the legal position is that it is most unlikely that the courts would allow the case of the Hyde park bombing to be reopened, but the position may be different for other offences for which Mr Downey might be pursued.
Returning to the Hallett report, until Dame Heather is able to report, there are limits to what I can say to avoid pre-empting her conclusions, but I wish to make clear this Government’s position on amnesties: we do not support, and have never supported, amnesties from prosecution. That is why both coalition parties opposed the legislation introduced by Labour in 2005, which was withdrawn in the face of widespread opposition, as emphasised today by the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell).
Had the Government been presented when we came to office with any scheme that amounted to immunity, exemption or amnesty from prosecution, we would have stopped it immediately. This Government believe in the rule of law and due process, and that applies across the board to everyone. Those who are still wanted for crimes must expect the law to take its course, and those who received letters under the OTR scheme cannot rely on them to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence becomes available now or in the future. In conclusion—
I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State just as she is coming to the end of her comments, but she seems to have overlooked—by accident, I am sure—one vital point that concerns the legal status of the letters. The former, very distinguished, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland emphasised the importance of a clear ruling on the legal status of those letters, and in my contribution I specifically asked the Secretary of State whether, at the end of the debate, she would give an assurance that she will speak to the Attorney-General, and that someone, either Lady Justice Hallett or the Attorney-General, would tell us once and for all—including the people of Northern Ireland, the victims and their families, and those who hold these letters—what is their legal status.
I felt I answered the hon. Lady’s question by stating that the letters were simply statements of facts at the time, which means they do not have any formal legal status. They were not an amnesty; they were merely statements of fact. I appreciate that another key theme running through today’s debate, and a source of the grave anger and concern expressed by the right hon. Member for Belfast North, and the hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for North Down, is that the facts of the scheme were not shared with the Northern Ireland Executive or fully shared with Parliament.
Not for the moment.
On behalf of the Government I have expressed regret that we did not discuss the scheme with Ministers in the Executive, especially after we concluded in August 2012 that any new cases should be directed to the devolved authorities. That was clearly a point at which we should have discussed the matter with the Justice Minister, but we did not. Today I repeat that apology for not sharing the information about the scheme with the First Minister or the Justice Minister, and I welcome the apology made by the shadow Secretary of State for Labour’s role and the way in which the scheme was administered under the previous Government.
The scheme and the era of side deals that undermined confidence in the political process must come to an end, and we now need to look forward. Whatever the conclusion of the inquiries now under way into the OTR controversy, the imperative to deal with issues such as flags, parading and the past, and to push for real reconciliation, is as strong as ever. Indeed, the events of recent weeks provide a further convincing reason why Northern Ireland needs an agreed way forward on the past, with structures that can operate in a balanced, accountable and above all transparent way and command public confidence. I hope that the whole House can agree on that as we express once again our strong and unified support for Northern Ireland and its continuing journey towards a genuinely shared and reconciled future.
In the two minutes I have, I shall sum up. I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) rightly said, this issue affects not just people in Northern Ireland. It should affect Members from all parts of the United Kingdom. There are fundamental issues at stake.
I am very grateful because the right hon. Gentleman gives me the chance to get on the record the fact that I deeply regret that the Secretary of State did not deal with the issue appropriately raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). It is absolutely essential to continue the process in a bipartisan way. I think the right hon. Gentleman would also wish to raise this concern. We need to establish whether the letters are simply statements of fact, as I believe, or whether or not, as a consequence of the Downey judgment, they have taken on a different perspective. That is absolutely crucial. I deeply regret that the Secretary of State did not take my intervention and am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for doing so.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. No doubt aspects of the debate have raised more questions than answers. However, I do not accept the validation of the scheme given by the shadow Minister. The legal status will come out when the judge makes her report, but, given the implementation of this secret deal, the way it was done and the reason it was kept secret, for anyone to think it was simply about statements of fact stretches credulity. We will come back to those issues.
I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. The themes we have touched on include putting victims at the heart of the matter—one theme was our concern for victims and justice. Another theme was the operation of the scheme and its effect. It is very clear in all quarters that there is no support whatever for any kind of amnesty. That is why there is anger about the way in which the scheme operated in effect in the Downey case.
We have explored the theme of what people knew and when. It is clear from contributions made by Members on both sides of the House that there is a consensus that politicians in Northern Ireland were kept in the dark, that Parliament was effectively kept in the dark, and that people knew about the scheme only if they were members of Sinn Fein. I acknowledge what the Secretary of State said about the fact that she kept the Northern Ireland Executive in the dark, even after the scheme was stopped. It would be useful to have an explanation of why that decision was taken.
Another theme is that the process was one-sided. The one-sidedness of the administration of justice in Northern Ireland is currently a massive issue. This issue plays into that.
I welcome the inquiries. Lady Justice Hallett has said today that she will fully and rigorously examine the scheme from its inception to date.
I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record some truths about the issue, but there will be an opportunity to return to it, and I look forward to doing so. All hon. Members can be assured that, as far as the Democratic Unionist party is concerned, unless it is very clear that the full truth emerges, that Downey or a case like it can never happen again, that the on-the-run scheme is put to bed completely—the Secretary of State has said that it is over—that the legal status of the letters is made clear, and that they do not protect anyone from now on and are effectively rescinded, we will have to return to this issue and deal with it again.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the background to and implications of the High Court judgment on John Downey.