Northern Ireland: On-the-Runs Scheme — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 27th January 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales 4:03 pm, 27th January 2015

My Lords, with permission, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to an Urgent Question in another place on the on-the-runs scheme. The Statement is as follows.

“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 would be stayed, pending an investigation by the PSNI 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 he was not wanted for arrest by police forces across the United Kingdom. This case is specifically covered on pages 107 and 108 of the Hallett report into on-the-runs, where it is described as ‘error 2’. The fact of the error has been in the public domain for some time and this 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. I spoke to the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland yesterday, and I understand from him that this is a live police investigation. I also briefed the Justice Minister on the case. The police will investigate where the evidence leads them. Under the circumstances, it would not be appropriate to comment further on the specifics of the case.

In relation to the OTR administrative scheme, I set out the Government’s position in full in my Statement to the House on 9 September. This followed detailed consideration of the report by Lady Justice Hallett that was published in July. I made clear in my Statement that the scheme is at an end and that there is no basis for any reliance on letters received under the scheme by so-called OTRs in the past. There is no amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution. Those who received letters under this 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”.

Photo of Lord McAvoy Lord McAvoy Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 4:06 pm, 27th January 2015

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Secretary of State’s Statement in the House of Commons. The revelation yesterday regarding the collapse of the inquest into the murder of Gareth O’Connor has caused further justifiable concern and anxiety in Northern Ireland. Our thoughts today must and should be with the O’Connor family. Like so many of those left behind, they sought truth and justice about what happened to Gareth in 2003. They have waited 12 long years for an inquest into the death of their son. The thought of preparing for a week-long inquest would have been harrowing for the family. This development has made a highly stressful situation even worse. News of another error from the administrative scheme for the on-the-runs is devastating, following the catastrophic error in the Downey case last year.

We have apologised for the Downey error, and do so again for the error in the O’Connor case. In the same way as this scheme never offered amnesty, it was also never intended to cover alleged offences committed after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. The delay in the coroner and the family being made aware of the error is deeply troubling. The Northern Ireland Office and the police knew about the case, and indeed—as the Minister has indicated—it was referred to in the Hallett report.

I have some questions for the Minister. Why did the Northern Ireland Office not ensure that this family were told of the error in the immediate aftermath of the Hallett report? How many other potential specific errors identified in the Hallett report are the Northern Ireland Office currently investigating? In view of the financial pressures facing the Police Service of Northern Ireland, what is the Minister’s estimate of the time it will take to review all the cases covered by the on-the-run scheme? Finally, in a related matter which has caused similar concerns, can the Minister give the House an update on investigations on the missing information as regards the royal prerogative before 1997?

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

The noble Lord made a number of important points and asked a number of questions. I am very pleased to hear that the noble Lord has echoed the apologies already made by the PSNI and by the Secretary of State to the family concerned. Why were they not told of the error earlier? It is a very complex situation in terms of the independence of the judiciary and of the inquest service. However, it is important to bear in mind that the Secretary of State and the PSNI have apologised to the family for the impact of this new development on them. We fully understand the problems it raises for them.

The noble Lord asked for the number of errors that were identified in the Hallett report. The Hallett report identified the Downey case and two other errors, of which this is one, and there are 36 cases where there is concern. All these are being reinvestigated by the PSNI as part of Operation Redfield.

The noble Lord asked how long this will take. I can be no more satisfactory in my answer than to say a number of years, in the estimation of the PSNI. He also asked for an update on the information relating to the royal prerogative of mercy. Following the Hallett report, the Northern Ireland Office has taken steps to improve its administrative systems. Work is ongoing with stakeholders to identify if there is any more material to be found.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 4:11 pm, 27th January 2015

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for repeating the Answer. I recall some elements of this case because Mr O’Connor disappeared shortly after the IMC was formed and we reported as much as we knew at that time in the very first report of the IMC. What puzzles me a little at this stage is, the mistake having been made and having been reported on some time ago, was the coronial service not informed so that it would have known that bringing forward an inquest at this stage was not going to go anywhere? If it was informed, it seems puzzling. If it was not informed by the PSNI, surely that is a serious gap that adds insult to injury in terms of the disadvantage that the family have been put at, not to mention the coronial service itself.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

My noble friend refers to the interlinking between the PSNI and the coroners service. It is important to bear in mind the independence of the PSNI. It must be free to pursue investigations. It is also important to bear in mind that this inquest has been ongoing for a number of years. Beyond that, it is not appropriate for me to comment on an individual case.

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan UUP

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the letter to the suspect in the Gareth O’Connor case was delivered to him by Gerry Kelly? If this is so, why was Gerry Kelly used as the postman, and how did he know the name and address of the suspect? How many other OTR letters have been given to Kelly for delivery? Further, how many other OTR letters have been given to the IRA/Sinn Fein leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, for delivery?

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

The noble Lord asked about the issues associated with the OTR administrative system in general. I can do no better than to refer him to the Hallett review, which set out in detail a description of the situation. This was a system set up under the previous Government. In so far as we are able, this Government have given the full information that we are aware of in relation to the Hallett review.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP

My Lords, will the Minister explain how a suspect received an on-the-run letter in error relating to a murder that took place post the 1998 peace agreement? Who was responsible for the error and who signed it off?

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord. I really cannot comment on the details of a specific case.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, will the Minister explain what metaphysical forces were at work that allowed a member of Sinn Fein to deliver a letter to a person who he did not know at an address that he did not know? Will she also confirm to the House that no blank letters were given to Sinn Fein for it to distribute to persons of its choosing? Will she give a categorical assurance from the Dispatch Box that no letters of that character were issued at any stage?

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

I understand the general concern that noble Lords are expressing about this scheme. I can say to the House only that, once we identified the scheme we brought it to an end in an orderly manner. We certainly are not of the view that the scheme has been operated in an efficient and acceptable manner. I once again refer the noble Lord to the Hallett report, which gave a very detailed description of the way in which those letters were issued and the way in which errors were made.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Conservative

Would my noble friend not agree that a postman who takes possession of a letter and then says that he does not know the address to which that letter was delivered strains credibility?

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

The noble Lord has his own view. In speaking to the House today, I can deal only with the facts as I know them about events that took place a considerable number of years ago.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, on the wider question, we can all understand the grief, the sense of loss and sometimes the bewilderment of families who were the victims of ancient crimes. However, would it not be very much better for all concerned if prosecutions were to cease for offences committed before 1994, when the two major ceasefires came into force?

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

This Government take the view— the same view as the two parties of this Government took when we were in opposition—that it was inappropriate for there to be amnesties for people who had committed crimes at that time.