UK says its handling of IRA suspects was flawed, apologises

by Reuters
Thursday, 17 July 2014 11:54 GMT

LONDON, July 17 (Reuters) - A British government scheme to inform suspected members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that they were no longer wanted for prosecution was flawed at many levels and at least three people were wrongly notified, the government said on Thursday.

Two successive governments sent out such letters as part of a 1998 Northern Ireland peace deal that largely ended three decades of violence over Britain's rule of the province. But many victims were unaware of the scheme until earlier this year.

The issue came to light when John Downey, an Irishman accused over a 1982 car bombing in London's Hyde Park, walked free from court because of a letter which mistakenly told him he was no longer being sought for prosecution.

That provoked anger in Northern Ireland, where the province's most senior politician threatened to resign unless there was an official inquiry.

Commenting on the inquiry's findings which were released on Thursday, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers told parliament the government accepted mistakes had been made and promised to try to remove barriers to future prosecutions.

"The report sets out a number of serious criticisms of how the scheme operated, including significant systemic failures," she said, saying the government accepted its conclusions.

"The scheme was not designed, it evolved. As a result there was no overall policy and no overall responsibility and accountability for it. When errors came to light opportunities were missed to rectify them. There was no risk assessment."

Cameron launched an inquiry in February after saying the government had made a "dreadful mistake" by issuing one of the letters to Downey. In addition to Downey, Villiers said two other suspects had wrongly received such letters.

Villiers said anyone in possession of such a letter should not think they had received a "get out of jail free card."

"They will not protect you from arrest or prosecution and should the police succeed in gathering sufficient evidence, you will be subject to due process of law," she said. (Reporting by William James; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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