Government shambles revealed over details of OTR links to murder

After republican outrage over Gerry Adams’ interrogation, it’s high time to revive unionist fury over the OTR comfort letters with the revelation that 95 out of 228 beneficiaries were linked by the police to murder. From the tortuous accounts by the Chief Constable Matt Baggott and ACC Drew Harris before the NI Select Committee of MPs today, the DUP can hardly be blamed for failing to realise in full what was going on. Neither did the Chief Constable for most of the time, he admitted. He was unaware that the PSNI  had a dedicated team preparing drafts for the NIO, until the judge disclosed it in the Downey case. In all of this the authorities have been their own worst enemy, with the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing.

It seems NIO officials rewrote police drafts in a way which failed to make clear the letters covered only the time being and not indefinitely. The PSNI never saw the final versions. Why did the NI Justice Minister David Ford know nothing about the scheme until shortly before the Downey case? Because  the comfort  letters system began long before  the devolution and justice  and policing in 2010 and afterwards  it remained a British government preserve under “national security.”  The PSNI are now conducting  a review of the recipients of the letters in searches for fresh evidence or previous evidence that may have been overlooked. You might think that  most of the horses have bolted by now .Under questioning Matt Baggot declined to  shoulder blame and  gamely refused  to blame anybody else. What follows is a blow by blow summary aided by the Guardian Politics live blog      

In February 2010 the Hillsborough pre-devolution talks were taking place. At the end of that process, the police were asked to review 38 names. Matt Baggott says the role of the police was clearly defined. It did not legally compromise the PSNI, he says. It was the conclusion of a long-standing process. It was like a “subject access request” under the Data Protection Act.

ACC Drew Harris says that 95 of the 228 on-the-run people who received letters saying that they were not facing prosecution are linked to the murders of 200 people. But they are linked through intelligence, he says. That is not the same as evidence that could lead to a prosecution. Ian Paisley jnr MP, says hearing that figure “breaks my heart.”

Adds at 23.30 from Henry McDonald of the Guardian: ”

Shortly after the hearing ended, the PSNI released a clarification: “A review is currently under way of the 228 names involved in Operation Rapid (the comfort letters) ; 95 of these are linked to 200 incidents involving 295 murders. The link can take a number of forms including intelligence.”

Harris continues:  When you look through the 228 names, there are people in that who are notorious, without a doubt.  Under questioning from North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, Drew Harris confirmed that there had been only one conviction of an IRA fugitive for a past Troubles crime out of 228 “on the runs” who received the letters of assurance.

 Matt Baggott:  The letters sent to John Downey and others do not represent an amnesty.

Q: Does that mean they could be wanted in the future?.

Harris says all the cases are being reviewed. It is a considerable piece of work. It could take two to three years to complete, he says.

David Simpson, the DUP MP, says that his constituents were outraged by the revelations about the number of pardons given out in Northern Ireland – 350 as disclosed last week

Q: Are you aware of any well-known figures receiving pardons?

Drew Harris says if they supply the names, the committee can decide if those involved are well-known. 18 of 350 who received the royal prerogative of mercy were similarly linked. The MPs will be given the names in confidence. I wonder why use they’ll make of them? Matt Baggott says he is in difficult legal territory. He is not sure whether they will be able to identify people.

These were decisions taken at a different time, he says.

Q: But you could name those who received pardons?

Harris says he has the names. He could provide them to the committee. But the information would be confidential, he says.

The tortuous accounts of the senior policemen leave me satisfied that the DUP couldn’t be blamed for not realising  exactly hat was going on.  For neither did the Chief Constable until May 2013 and the police never saw the final letters.

What a shambles! The case for greater transparency over the legacy of the Troubles is overwhelming. But it also starkly reveals the paucity of evidence remaining. Is it not time to admit this in a less unsettling and disturbing fashion?


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London