Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement about recent developments relating to the on-the-run letters which have permitted a second fugitive to evade justice.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): On Monday 26 January, the coroner conducting the inquest into the death of Mr Gareth O’Connor, who disappeared in May 2003, directed that the inquest should be stayed pending an investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into one of the suspects in Mr O’Connor’s murder. The suspect was part of the administrative scheme dealing with so-called on-the-runs, and was in receipt of a letter from the Northern Ireland Office informing him that he was not wanted for arrest by police forces in the United Kingdom. This case is specifically covered on pages 107 and 108 of the Hallett report on the on-the-runs scheme, where it is described as “error 2”. The fact of the error has therefore been in the public domain for some time, and the case is not a new development.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland is investigating the suspect’s case, and will be considering whether charges can be brought against the individual concerned. I spoke to the Chief Constable of the PSNI yesterday, and I understand from him that this is a live police investigation. I also briefed the Justice Minister—in brief—on the case. The police will investigate where the evidence leads them. In the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the specifics of the case.
As for the OTR administrative scheme, I set out the Government’s position fully in my statement to the House on 9 September. That followed detailed consideration of the report by Lady Justice Hallett, which was published in July. I made clear in my statement that the scheme was at an end, and that there was no basis for any reliance on letters received by so-called OTRs under the scheme. There is no amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution. Those who received letters under the scheme should be in no doubt: if there is considered to be evidence or intelligence of their involvement in crime, they will be investigated by the police, and if the evidence is sufficient to warrant prosecution, they will be prosecuted.
Ian Paisley: I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The most disturbing aspect of what she has told the House today is the fact that the O’Connor murder relates to a post-1998 murder that occurred in 2003. We have been consistently told that the names of the OTRs were critical to securing a 1998 peace agreement, yet this murder post-dates that. Will the Secretary of State now agree to publish all the names with all the letters? Will she publish correspondence between Baroness Scotland and the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), whom I informed earlier I would be mentioning in the House, in terms of the relationship between that correspondence and the murderer of Mr O’Connor? Will the Secretary of State estimate how many other errors there are in this catalogue of errors and accept that the Government and the Hallett review conclusion that there is a single error is now without foundation?
Will the Secretary of State now consider legislation formally to annul the value of all these letters, to put meat on the bones of what she has said: that these letters are without value? Does she agree that Gerry Kelly must be formally investigated for how these letters have been distributed and for whom these letters have been requested? What compensation is now being considered for the families of those who have suffered as a result of Mr Downey’s activities and as a result of the actions by the murderer of Mr O’Connor, because these people cannot get justice by any other means and must now be entitled to some form of compensation?
Mrs Villiers: As is clear from the conclusions of the Hallett report, this letter should not have been issued; it was issued in error. For a number of reasons I do not think it would be appropriate to make public the names of the individuals who received letters under the scheme, not the least of which is that doing so could potentially prejudice a future prosecution and make it more difficult to secure a conviction.
In relation to the number of errors, Lady Justice Hallett identified in her report two errors in addition to the one made in the case of Mr John Downey. She also identified a further 36 cases considered by Operation Rapid where she believed there was a risk that the wrong test had been applied. She did not conclude that there were actually errors in these cases, but she proposed that they should be a priority for further investigation because the risk of error in those cases was higher than in others.
In relation to legislation, as I briefed the House in September, it is clear to me that the most effective means to guard against future collapses of trials and future abuse of processes defence is to issue a clear statement indicating to anyone who received a letter under the scheme that it is not safe to rely on those letters—that they should not be relied on—and that is what I did. The option of legislating on these matters was carefully considered, but the conclusion is that legislation would not be as effective as a clear statement at the Dispatch Box that the scheme is at an end and these letters should not be relied on, not least because of a risk that errors have been made in other cases.