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Northern Ireland: On-the-runs

Volume 753: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether fresh evidence is being sought by the police on any of the persons on the list of “on the runs” submitted by Sinn Fein to the Northern Ireland Office who have been sent letters informing them that they are not currently wanted for questioning, arrest or prosecution.

My Lords, responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of individuals rests with the police and prosecuting authorities. The right honourable Lady Justice Hallett DBE has been appointed to conduct an independent review of the administrative scheme to deal with so-called on-the-runs. This inquiry will provide a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme. I expect the report to be completed by the end of June 2014 for the purpose of its full publication.

I know that my noble friend fully understands the sense of shock and outrage which now exists as a result of the revelation a few weeks ago that the previous Government arranged for secret letters to be sent to more than 150 terrorist suspects at the behest of Sinn Fein. Mr Gerry Adams said that,

“it would be better if there was an invisible process”—

words quoted at the recent Downey trial before its collapse. Why on earth did this Government continue the shameful collusion with Sinn Fein by allowing more letters to be sent out by officials at the Northern Ireland Office until the end of 2012? The Government have made it clear that the letters confer no permanent immunity from prosecution. Will my noble friend give us an absolute assurance that the police in all parts of our country are fully aware that we want them to gather evidence and bring terrorists to justice for their shameful crimes?

My Lords, if at any time we had been presented with a scheme that amounted to immunity, exemption or amnesty, we would have stopped it, consistent with the opposition of both coalition parties to the previous Government’s Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill in 2005, which proposed an amnesty. The current Government continued the scheme on the basis of continuing with existing cases to the overwhelming part until 2012, and continued work on it until the early part of 2013. Noble Lords must wait for the outcome of the review to know the full details.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has given two sets of Answers to Written Questions recently and made clear that the inquiry to be conducted by Lady Justice Hallett has no power of compulsion. Why is that? Why is Lady Justice Hallett constrained and not holding an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005?

My Lords, it is an administrative review and will not be conducted according to the 2005 Act. This Government have always been clear that we have reservations about the use of public inquiries to deal with the past. There is an issue about the length of time that many of them take and there is in this case a clear public interest in early publication of the report.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Government intend that the inquiry—or review, as it is now termed—will go ahead without having heard from the people who designed the process, the then Secretary of State and Mr Gerard Adams. Is it satisfactory to try to operate without having the power to compel Mr Adams to come to give evidence?

My Lords, government officials will of course appear before the inquiry and will give evidence. Others will be invited to do so. It is entirely up to Lady Justice Hallett how she reads her remit in that regard, from whom she will request evidence and how far she takes the scope of her inquiry, but, for the reasons to which I have already referred, she is asked to report by the end of June at the latest.

My Lords, I raise a matter which does not seek to touch on the merits or the demerits of the scheme: a purely technical, legal matter. Is any person who has received a letter as described in the Question in any way protected from the law of citizen’s arrest, or would it in fact need legislation to produce such a result?

The intention of the letters was to present a statement of fact at a point in time. As such, they did not grant immunity, exemption or amnesty. To do that would have required legislation.

My Lords, we should never forget those members of our Armed Forces who lost their lives in the Hyde Park bombing, their families and all victims of the other atrocities associated with the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

As part of a complex process that made peace and stability in Northern Ireland possible, the previous Labour Government issued on-the-run letters to people who had reason to believe that they might be under investigation. As stated by both the Opposition and the Government, that was not an amnesty and letters made clear to recipients that, should evidence come to light in future, they could be prosecuted. However, the scheme once again draws attention to the need for long-term solutions on issues of the past. Can the Minister reassure the House that she still believes that a positive outcome will be reached from the ongoing all-party talks, and are the Government fully engaged in trying to make that happen?

I share the noble Lord’s sentiments in relation to sympathies towards the families of victims—indeed, towards victims throughout the Troubles. I understand entirely the considerable anger that the events of the past few weeks have stirred among them and among others in the community in Northern Ireland. I am sure that those who were in government during the early years of the on-the-runs scheme will welcome the opportunity in due course to give evidence. There are five inquiries of various sorts being undertaken into this process and I am sure that they will welcome that opportunity. I can confirm that the Government are committed to ensuring that there is a long-term solution to the problems of the past in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, will my noble friend consider extending the terms of this inquiry so that we can know whether there were any letters or similar inducements given to assist the progress of the ceasefire talks which led eventually to the Good Friday agreement? It is my understanding that certain proceedings were held up to assist that process. It would be interesting to know whether that is indeed true.

The terms of reference of Lady Justice Hallett’s inquiry have been set out. Indeed, work has started on it. However, I am sure that if she were to come upon evidence that led her to be concerned about issues of the nature that my noble friend has referred to, it would be within her remit for her to make recommendations on that for the future.