The IRA “on the run” (OTR) dispute

Rule of law: the restriction of the arbitrary exercise of power by subordinating it to well-defined and established laws.

10 April 1998

Good Friday Agreement signed.

5 November 1999

Letter from Tony Blair to Gerry Adams mentions that Attorney-General (Lord Williams) wished to use his discretion to review whether the prosecution of OTR cases was in the public interest.

2 May 2000

Northern Ireland Office (NIO) officials agree to consider a process for reviewing OTR cases in a way which would allow suspects “to determine where they stood in relation to the prosecuting authorities”.

PM Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, indicates to Sinn Féin that, if given a list of names, the UK Government would ask the police and prosecuting authorities whether there was a public interest in prosecution. The Attorney-General would be responsible for final decisions as the Minister who ultimately oversees prosecutors. This is confirmed in a letter from Blair to Gerry Adams three days later.

19 May 2000

Sinn Féin provides a preliminary list of OTRs (36 names).

24 May 2000

Letter from Attorney-General to Powell. Sinn Féin’s list had been forwarded to Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland (Alasdair Fraser) for review. Names would be forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales (David Calvert-Smith) where relevant. The Attorney-General wrote that “the integrity of the criminal justice system is a fragile thing” and added: “I must not act for reasons of political convenience – however desirable any immediate effect may be.”

• “The integrity of the criminal justice system is a fragile thing. I must not act for reasons of political convenience – however desirable any immediate effect may be.”

Attorney-General, Lord Williams, May 2000

2 June 2000

Letter from Attorney-General to Northern Ireland (NI) Secretary Peter Mandelson: “I am 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.”

• “I am 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.”

Attorney-General, Lord Williams, Jun 2000

15 June 2000

Letters from Powell to Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly, enclosing decisions by Attorney-General; these refer to offences in England and Wales. Excerpts: “You would not, therefore face prosecution for any such offence should you return to the United Kingdom. That decision is based on the evidence currently available. Should fresh evidence arise – and any statement made by you implicating yourself … may amount to such evidence – the matter may have to be reconsidered.”

29 September 2000

Peter Mandelson announces that the UK Government will no longer seek the extradition of fugitives who would, if convicted, be released or only serve short sentences. The announcement refers to 21 fugitives (having escaped from custody) but not suspects who were wanted for offences or had been charged but not convicted.

January 2001

Report by former NIO civil servant Quentin Thomas on alternative options for OTR cases, ranging from continued investigations to an automatic amnesty. Thomas concluded that an automatic amnesty would be the most straightforward option. None of the options were accepted, due to legal difficulties, and the existing OTR process continued.

12 March 2001

Gerry Kelly presents an additional list (30 names) and states that new names are continually emerging. Kelly calls for a more formal system for processing the cases.

May 2001

Meeting between Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid. Adams comments that an “invisible process” would be better for republican confidence but accepts that the Government had to legislate on the issue.

1 August 2001

Political talks at Weston Park result in a declaration by the British and Irish governments: OTR suspects would “if convicted, stand to benefit from the early release scheme.” It would also be “a natural development … for such prosecutions not to be pursued”.

January 2002

A list of 55 names presented by Sinn Féin includes John Downey, suspected by the Metropolitan Police for the murder of four soldiers in the 1983 Hyde Park bombing.

3 September 2002

Internal NIO briefing. 162 names provided by Sinn Féin to date. Sixty-one had received letters notifying them that they could return to Northern Ireland. A further 10 names were raised by the Prison Service and two names by the Irish Government. Gerry Kelly’s court statement confirms that 187 OTRs had been processed up to 2013.

1 May 2003

Joint declaration by British and Irish governments: includes proposals to legislate for OTR cases once decommissioning was complete. Legislation would allow a suspect to return to Northern Ireland “without risk of arrest for questioning or charge”.

26 September 2005

IRA decommissioning confirmed.

29 November 2005

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain introduces the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, to legislate for OTR suspects. This is withdrawn on 11 January 2006 after opposition from Sinn Féin, as the Bill also covered the security forces.

11 October 2006

Northern Ireland question time. Peter Robinson asks for an assurance that “no other procedure will be used to allow on-the-run terrorists to return.” Hain replies: “There is no other procedure. There is no prospect of an amnesty.”

28 December 2006

Letter from Blair to Adams: “I have always believed that the position of these OTRs is an anomaly which needs to be addressed. Before I leave office I am committed to finding a scheme which will resolve all the remaining cases”.

7 February 2007

First meeting of Operation Rapid: PSNI review of OTRs wanted for arrest in Northern Ireland. Barra McGrory corresponds with PSNI as solicitor acting on behalf of OTR suspects.

1 March 2007

Written answer from Peter Hain to UUP MP Sylvia Hermon: “The Government continue to accept that the position of ‘on the runs’ is an anomaly, and we believe that the anomaly will need to be addressed at some stage. However, the Government do not have any current proposals for doing so.”

8 May 2007

Devolution restored in Northern Ireland, following agreement between DUP and Sinn Féin.

20 July 2007

Letter from NIO to Gerry Kelly, enclosing Attorney-General’s decision on John Downey and nine other cases.

Downey’s letter states: “The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not aware of any interest in you from any other police force in the United Kingdom.”

March 2008

Powell publishes his book ‘Great Hatred, Little Room’.

He claims that Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds “said they could accept the implementation of the unpopular undertakings we had made under the Joint Declaration [of 2003] as long as Tony wrote to Paisley making it clear that these concessions had been agreed during David Trimble’s watch, not theirs.” Robinson, Dodds and Trimble have denied Powell’s version of events.

23 January 2009

Consultative Group on the Past (Eames-Bradley) report published. The group understood that the PSNI and Public Prosecution Service had identified “around 200” OTRs. It proposed that cases should proceed to trial but a ‘legacy commission’ was needed to consider a longer term solution.

1 April 2010

Policing Board meeting. Answer from ACC Drew Harris to DUP MLA Tom Buchanan: “There is an ongoing process to resolve those individuals who mostly refer to themselves as ‘on the runs’.”

Most suspects were identified “through names submitted either by political parties or the governments to ourselves.” SDLP, UUP and Sinn Féin members also present at meeting.

12 April 2010

Devolution of policing and justice. Alliance Party leader David Ford becomes Justice Minister. UK Attorney-General (Baroness Scotland) continues to oversee OTR scheme.

19 May 2013

Downey arrested at Gatwick Airport by Metropolitan Police.

22 May 2013

Downey charged with murder of four soldiers in Hyde Park bombing.

1 August 2013

Downey granted conditional bail.

24 January 2014

Downey is arraigned and pleads not guilty.

25 February 2014

Case dismissed over abuse of process. Reporting restrictions lifted.

26 February 2014

Peter Robinson warns that he will resign as First Minister unless a “full judicial inquiry” takes place and all letters are rescinded.

Arlene Foster states: “We need to see a public inquiry.” Attorney-General Dominic Grieve confirms that 38 of the 187 letters were sent out under the Coalition Government. Five cases were still being considered by the NIO.

27 February 2014

Robinson withdraws threat to resign after David Cameron announces a judge-led review. It will take evidence in private and report back to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers by 31 May 2014.

Terms of reference:

• produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme;

• determine whether any letters sent through the scheme contained errors;

• make recommendations as necessary on this or related matters.

David Cameron comments at press conference: “The mistake – and it was a dreadful mistake – was for Mr Downey to be sent a letter being told he was not wanted … very difficult decisions were taken … as an incoming Prime Minister I don’t want to unpick or call into question all those difficult decisions that were made.”

7 March 2014

Northern Ireland Affairs Committee announces inquiry into all aspects of the OTR scheme with the power to call for witnesses and papers within the UK.