WHILE the issue of the so-called ‘On the Runs’ was managed quietly by Tony Blair during a challenging time in the peace process, the ‘nod and a wink’ process always had the potential to end in controversy.
In 2006, there was an attempt to introduce legislation to cover the OTRs, however, this was shelved in the face of widespread opposition.
Sinn Féin initially supported but later rejected the plans, because it would have also covered the British Army and RUC.
And so in February 2007, the PSNI began a review of people regarded as “wanted” in connection with terrorist-related offences before the Good Friday Agreement, and what basis, if any, they had to seek arrests.
Then secretary of state, Peter Hain wanted the scheme to be run in secret.
The return of republicans to Northern Ireland, who had been previously living elsewhere, meant the process was not as clandestine as the then Labour administration might have wanted.
However, the collapse of the Hyde Park case meant the scheme was made known in the most public of ways.
In 2014, Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that John Downey’s trial for the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing, was an abuse of process and would “offend the court’s sense of justice and propriety” due to comfort letter in the veteran republican’s possession.
And so news that Downey, now aged 66, was arrested in Co Donegal on Monday in connection with the murder of two soldiers in a 1972 IRA bomb will undoubtedly raise the question – what’s changed?
The Public Prosecution Service are relying on a September 2014 statement by then Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, who told the Commons that the letters were now rendered useless.
Ms Villiers said at the time that “no one should take any comfort from these letters” and they “shouldn’t sleep easily”.
“We can no longer be certain they were accurate at the time. They are not immunity, they were statements of facts that are no longer accurate”, she stated.
And so it will now be for a new trial judge to decide the legalities of that Commons statement, to judge if letters, issued by a Labour Government, are no longer binding under a Conservative administration.
However, the complicated nature of the European Arrest Warrant and political and legal arguments over the legalities of the OTR letters mean this is a case that is likely to run for quite some time.
This article first appeared in the Irish News