Ombudsman critical over on-the-runs

Published: Tuesday 21st October 2014 by The News Editor

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Police in Northern Ireland can offer no satisfactory explanation for why they reviewed the cases of 36 republican terror fugitives whose status was changed from wanted to not wanted, a watchdog has found.

Police ombudsman Michael Maguire said an incorrect interpretation of the law had potentially seen a higher threshold for arrest applied to dozens of so-called on-the-runs (OTRs) when their files were subject to re-examination in 2007 as part of an administration scheme set up by the Government to establish whether certain individuals could return to the UK without fear of detention.

Dr Maguire questioned why the exercise had been conducted, given the historic cases had already been looked at as part of the process during the previous six years.

The ombudsman has examined the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) role in the controversial scheme – established by the Government at the request of Sinn Fein – and in particular officers’ handling of the case of John Downey, who walked free from the Old Bailey earlier this year when his prosecution for the murders of four soldiers in the IRA’s 1982 bomb in Hyde Park collapsed when it emerged he had been mistakenly assured in an official letter that he was able to return the UK.

The PSNI was heavily criticised for failing to inform the authorities issuing the letter that Downey was wanted by the Metropolitan Police for questioning over the Hyde Park outrage. Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, denied involvement in the attack.

The error, and subsequent missed opportunities to correct it, happened in the period from 2007 to 2009.

The PSNI had been assessing evidence in individual cases as part of the process since 2000 but in 2007 it initiated a fresh drive to complete the task – called Operation Rapid – after the government signalled a desire for it to be sorted.

The fresh impetus from the Labour administration came in the politically-sensitive period prior to devolution being restored to Stormont.

Dr Maguire’s report was critical of Operation Rapid, saying it was marked by a “lack of clarity, structure and leadership”, with disjointed communication between key officers.

The ombudsman, who investigates allegations of police misconduct in Northern Ireland, noted that around 130 OTR cases had already been assessed between 2000 and 2006 prior to the start of the new operation.

His report said: “It is therefore significant that when the PSNI Operation Rapid commenced in February 2007, it carried out a review of all names again, not merely a continuation of outstanding checks or a processing of additional names.

“Furthermore, the reviews conducted through Operation Rapid resulted in a change of status in a considerable number of those who had already been reviewed in recent years.

“In comparing the recorded status of the individuals, 36 of those who were assessed prior to January 2007 as ‘wanted’, for arrest and interview in relation to serious terrorist offences, were subsequently re-assessed in 2007 and 2008 as ‘not wanted’ by Operation Rapid.”

Dr Maguire explained why the status of so many OTRs, among them Downey, was potentially changed.

“Perhaps the most serious and significant flaw was to apply a higher standard for considering whether someone should be arrested than that which is normally applied,” he said.

An assessment of Downey in 2004 had established he was wanted for questioning over a bomb attack in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, in 1972. In the 2007 re-assessment, his status in relation to the Enniskillen case was changed to not wanted.

But more significant in Downey’s case in terms of the Old Bailey trial was the fact the PSNI failed to inform the relevant authorities that he was wanted for questioning by another police force, the Met, for the Hyde Park outrage.

“It must be acknowledged that at no time did the PSNI record in writing that they were not aware John Downey was wanted by any other police service within the United Kingdom,” said Dr Maguire.

“However, their responses to subsequent inquiries from the NIO (Northern Ireland Office) clearly gave rise to that assertion.”

A Government-commissioned judge-led review of the administrative scheme published in the summer found it was systematically flawed in operation but not unlawful in principle.

Lady Justice Hallett, who conducted the inquiry, said a “catastrophic” error had been made in the Downey case, but she insisted the letters of assurance did not amount to amnesties or get-out-of-jail-free cards.

The PSNI is re-examining all the OTR cases – around 230 – to establish if any other errors have been made.

Responding to Dr Maguire’s findings, PSNI chief constable George Hamilton said: “In February 2014, the Police Service of Northern Ireland accepted full responsibility for its failings which lead to the collapse of the trial of John Downey. The PSNI referred the case to the office of the police ombudsman for an independent investigation into the role of police.

“The then-chief constable Matt Baggott accepted that the failings of the police should not have happened and issued a full apology to the families of the victims and survivors of the Hyde Park atrocity.

“The PSNI chief constable has since initiated a review of all those people considered under the ‘On The Run’ scheme and this work is still ongoing.”

Published: Tuesday 21st October 2014 by The News Editor

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