Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris has told members of parliament in the House of Commons that 95 recipients of, so-called, “letters of comfort”, issued by the British government, have links to 200 incidents, that resulted in 295 murders.
Harris told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that five individuals who received these letters were now under active investigation on the back of new evidence unearthed by the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team.
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Harris gave evidence at the Northern Ireland Affairs’ inquiry into the on-the-run (OTR) process agreed between Sinn Féin and the British Labour government. About 190 letters were sent to republicans informing them that they would not be sought out be the United Kingdom authorizes.
Assistant Chief Constable told the committee that he was not sure if the new evidence against these five recipients would annul their “letters of comfort”. Their files will be passed to the prosecutors in Northern Ireland to determine whether charges could be pursued.
The scheme started in 1998 following the Good Friday Agreement.
The “letters of comfort” recently came into question when John Downey (62), from Donegal was arrested for the 1982 IRA attack on the Queen’s cavalry in Hyde Park, London, in May 2013. The nail-bombing at the tourist attraction killed four police officers and seven horses.
The prosecution of Downey was stopped in February. It was found that Downey had been wrongly sent one of these letters while Metropolitan Police were looking for him. Downey denies any involvement in the bombing.
The PSNI have been heavily criticized over their handling of Downey’s case. Justice Sweeney said sending the letter to Downey had been a ''catastrophic'' mistake.
As part of the ongoing investigations the police have been asked to review the statues of 228 individuals to see if they were wanted or not at this particular point in time. Harris said that of the 95 being investigated some of the evidence may not have been strong enough to warrant an arrest.
He said that operation, called “Redfield”, could take "two to three years".
"All of that is now being assessed and obviously we want to get to an evidential footing and all of that work is what Redfield is taking on,” said Harris.
"So it is a re-examination of each individual and all of the crimes they are connected to."
North Antrim Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Jnr said it broke his heart that these letters had cleared the 95 individuals who were under suspicion.
Baggott said “I wouldn't say this cleared people of murders - that is a rather extreme statement - I think we have to work through this methodically.”
Here Peter Robinson First Minister of Northern Ireland and Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party criticizes the OTR process: