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?


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  • Granni Trixie

    Correction: it’s not just “unionists” who find the underhand OTRs scheme morally repugnant. A sectarian assumption?

  • Mc Slaggart

    Granni Trixie

    I can live with people being told if they would go to court or not. The ability of the British security forces can be seen by the mess and they would be looking for people who did nothing other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Pardons on the other had makes me want to scream. If their was evidence that would make a case them send them to prison. Why NOT!!!!!!!!!

  • socaire

    This was the price that had to be paid for ‘peace’. The people voted for it. If they want to unvote well tough tittie.

  • Granni Trixie

    People did not know about the scheme to vote for it. It was a secret deal (which in itself is revealing) geddit?

  • summerhill

    ‘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’

    Brian, reports have it that one of the main members of the PSNI responsible for the management and implementation of the ‘OTRs’ scheme is married to a senior DUP politician. Now, the possibility of small talk in the chateau is no guarantee that the DUP knew about the OTRs scheme but surely……

  • Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh

    Great. All this is going to lead to is more political grandstanding, which in my opinion only adds insult to the victims’ injury. The whole conflict was initiated by politicians, who instead of sorting things out poured rhetorical fuel on the fire. Now they want to indulge in moral umbrage and judge those who did their dirty work for them – instead of doing what they should have done in the effing first place: treat the other side with respect and negotiate arrangements, with which everybody can live – with the emphasis being on the word live, as in live and let live and not kill!!!!

  • aquifer

    “it’s high time to revive unionist fury”

    Sounds like a Belfast Telegraph headline.

    What about the poor loyal informers who had to participate in attacks to keep their cover?

    I voted to change the record but I keep hearing the same tune.

    Bored already.

  • aquifer

    “macho fundamentalists repeatedly sabotage political agreement, catholic communist gun cult thrives in a capitalist suburb, thousands dead, the brightest walk”

    The headline you will never see.

    I guess it is a bit long winded.

  • Rory Carr

    As any fule knowe it would have been unthinkable for the IRA to make any agreement with the Brits for cessation of hostilities and a total end to armed struggle that did not include a guarantee that a line would be drawn in the sand whereby no prosecutions would be made in respect of actions prior to that time. How other could the Republican negotiators have sold the whole process to the rank and file? “Let’s stop fighting, lads and come in from the cold. There’s a nice cosy cell awaiting awaiting each of you.”

    The letters demanded by those known as the OTRs were clearly a form of reassurance demanded by wary rank and file Volunteers who did not quite trust the Brits (as who would ?). But while the British could secretly give such assurances, they could not publicly admit to them as any de jure amnesty would have required the agreement of Parliament. But the need for secrecy was a British need (just as they needed it to be (for form’s sake) that Gerry Adams was a political and not a military figure) and, if in voting for the Belfast Agreement in ignorance of such hidden deals one feels duped, then blame the representatives of the Great White Queen and all the Sir Humpherys who guided them.

  • Aquifier[11.45]Ian Paisley jnr’s contribution is a cry for help. He knows Brits aren’t on unionist sides but the scale of their betrayal of ‘unionist ‘loyalty’ has him in fury. This is what the Brits told unionists a century ago. We want rid of you but you’re clinging on. Get lost.

  • Kevsterino

    It looks like HMG did what they had to do to secure the end of the conflict. Pardons where necessary, these ‘comfort letters’ when that would suffice. In any case, without such things, I am not sure how much it would have swelled the ranks of the RIRA if Sinn Fein had proceeded without such assurances.

    I think all who were involved in the negotiations knew these things were indispensable to republicans to keep these guys on side.

    Attrition will eventually make this all moot.

    Meanwhile, truth remains a prisoner with no possibility of parole.

  • BarneyT

    Whatever way you look at this and many other events, we are shaping up to countenance the unsavourable. Not pursuing a case in the interest of the public, or rather political and social impact, comfort letters, etc…all points to the need for an amnesty. Everyone wants it at some level particularly when it concerns their side, but the words, wipe the slate, put a peg in the ground are difficult to get the tongue around. As bad as this seems the victims can hinder progress. We must learn to let go.

  • Charles_Gould

    Victims and justice must surely come first in the OTR fallout – that must be the direction of travel in the peace process at the moment.

  • cynic2

    It was not a shambles. It was was a carefully constructed conspiracy to pervert the ends of justice delivered in great secrecy by a cabal at Downing Street and within the NIO

    This calls for a criminal inquiry

  • Politico68

    Honestly, the PSNI must be exhausted at this stage, they are gonna have to recruit another fifty thousand police officers to get through all this mess and all the other messes that seem to be knocking around.

    I don’t know what the fuss is about the letters anyway. Apparently in calls in to question the integrity od the judicial system. Well, i am sorry but what did peole really believe was going to happen after 1998.

    Republicans and Loyalists downed tools and entered negotiations for peace,. peace came so the prisoners were released. Now, 16 years later people want them all locked up again if they are found to be guilty for other ‘crimes’ or unsolved cases.

    Obviously if there was going to be a settlement it had to include some sort of protection against prosecution down the road. Why on earth would paramilitaries have agreed to sign up for the peace agreement while at the same time knowing that after a few years they would be liable for lifting?

    Can someone explain this to me like I am a three yr old? honestly, i just don’t gettit

    in the meantime have a look at this …….

  • Reader

    Politico68: Why on earth would paramilitaries have agreed to sign up for the peace agreement while at the same time knowing that after a few years they would be liable for lifting?
    Because it was the best agreement they could get, and offered the chance to relax with their gains while not having to worry about more than two years in the slammer, even if the law ever caught up with them.
    Your implication that this was always part of the deal founders somewhat because they waited for several years and at least one general election before receiving the letters.
    I am also interested in your strong implications that (1) Paramilitaries had a veto on the republican side of the deal, i.e. the SF/IRA presumption; and (2) That the letters went to paramilitaries who *did* have something to worry about, rather than to the 1,600,000 locals who *might* have something to worry about.

  • Morpheus

    It doesn’t matter what the 228 people were linked to – it could be murder or it could be traffic violations – what matters is if they were wanted for questioning at the time the letters were issued.

    Article 3 of the ECHR and Human Rights Act ensures that everyone has a legal right upon request to be informed if police require them for questioning – that’s exactly what they got. All 228 of them. They got confirmation that they were not wanted at that time plus a warning that they would be prosecuted, just like anyone else, if evidence warranted it. The letters are no more an amnesty now than they were back when this was covered the first time and neither are they GOOJF cards or assurances that the recipients are immune from future prosecution.

    As for the DUP then I think there is more than enough evidence to support their knowledge of the scheme. Not only did the Government’s Chief of Staff confirm that they could accept the scheme if Tony Blair wrote to Ian Paisley making clear it had been agreed under David Trimble’s watch but they had representatives on the Policing Board – one a QC no less – asking questions about it. And that’s without touching the media coverage as far back as 2002!

    As for transparency then it is obvious that the general public didn’t know about it but the Government knew about the scheme, the police knew about the scheme, The Attorney General knew about the scheme, the NIO knew about the scheme, our politicians knew about the scheme, Republicans knew about the scheme, loyalists knew about the scheme, the media knew of the scheme and the NI Prison Service not only knew about it but used it as well.

  • Charles_Gould

    “Obviously if there was going to be a settlement it had to include some sort of protection against prosecution down the road. ”

    Lets be clear: The GFA didn’t contain any such protection – that is clear. So the usual rules apply, with the exception that one can be released under licence after two years.

  • “Government shambles revealed over details of OTR links to murder”

    Brian, the communication network may have been and probably was more extensive and interwoven than your title embraces and the NIA committee will be interrogating. This point is illustrated by Ronnie Flanagan on April 30:

    12:30: Here were a category of people being raised to government or governments – plural – who were trying to agree a long term solidified peace process …

    Anyone can ask the Irish authorities to act on their behalf and, so far as this web of communications is concerned, the exchanges can range from minister to minister to, say, civil servant from the Irish Department of Justice and someone from the DPP/PPS. Some of these exchanges will be classified as secret and some of the participants cannot be questioned by the committee. In other words, the committee will see only some of the pieces of the jig-saw and may well have difficulty comprehending the overall picture.

  • tacapall

    “Lets be clear: The GFA didn’t contain any such protection – that is clear. So the usual rules apply, with the exception that one can be released under licence after two years”

    I note Charles like the rest of the unionist family your not running about like a chicken with no head screaming for heads to roll when it comes to thon unelected woman having even the authority to bypass the judgement of the courts handing out an unknown number of pardons to anyone who would kiss her ass. Will you be annoyed if it turns out she issued these to paramilitaries who didn’t even serve the mandatory two years, you keep screaming was signed up to in the GFA.

  • Brian Walker

    We all love conspiracies don’t we? And the thought of Gerry Kelly producing yet another little list doesn’t appeal to everybody.

    The police are presenting their part in it as a minor clerical role in answering the question about OTRs – “are you wanted at this moment in time or not?” stressing that If further evidence emerged this might change.This was passed to the NIO. Sylvia Hermon was told the drafts were altered by civil servants for sending out and not referred back to the police. No doubt Lady Hallett and the select committee between them will lay out the evidence which people will treat, well, selectively.

  • Reader

    tacapall: …screaming for heads to roll when it comes to thon unelected woman having even the authority to bypass the judgement of the courts handing out an unknown number of pardons to anyone who would kiss her ass.
    “thon unelected woman” did what the government of the day told her to do. If the UK ever gets rid of the monarchy, that won’t be the reason why.

  • Morpheus

    Brian, The Secretary of State’s Ministerial Statement from February 25th describes the wording of the letters:

    “The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been informed by the Attorney General that on the basis of the information currently available, there is no outstanding direction for prosecution in Northern Ireland, there are no warrants in existence nor are you wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charge by the police. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not aware of any interest in you from any other police force in the United Kingdom. If any other outstanding offence or offences came to light, or if any request for extradition were to be received, these would have to be dealt with in the usual way.”

    Can you see anything in that which the PSNI might object to?

  • HopefulPessimist

    The reality is that all of the murders linked to the OTRs by intelligence will have been investigated thoroughly at the time, while the RUC may have been incompetent at times I don’t think anybody ever suggested that they didn’t try really hard to catch republican paramilitaries they suspected of murder. The likelihood that new evidence is going to come to light which might lead to a conviction has to be slight given that we are talking, I assume for the most part, about crimes committed over 20 years ago for which there are no ongoing investigations.

    The difference in the Downey case was that he shouldn’t have been given a letter because there was an ongoing investigation and he was a suspect.

    So talk of 295 murders and justice for victims is just more whataboutery that gets us absolutely nowhere.

  • tacapall

    “thon unelected woman” did what the government of the day told her to do. If the UK ever gets rid of the monarchy, that won’t be the reason why”

    Are you suggesting she cant issue pardons without government approval ? But thanks for answering my question, obviously pardons are acceptable and letters of comfort are not, maybe thats got something to do with yer woman being the protestant messiah an all.

  • “No doubt Lady Hallett and the select committee between them will lay out the evidence which people will treat, well, selectively.”

    Brian, these side-deals were, are and will continue to be ‘smoke and mirror’ processes and it’s a shame that the MSM lacks the resources and/or the will to blow some of the smoke away. Within these processes, there will be honourable people; there will also be those who lie through their back teeth. I’ve been privy to some of these shenanigans in a different context.

  • Son of Strongbow

    It is worrying, and speaks to the failings of the local educational system, that some people obviously believe that Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne and not Queen Elizabeth II.

  • tacapall

    Queen who’s on the toilet seat ?

    Is that thon same woman who can refuse to enact any law she doesn’t like that Westminster must pass to her for her approval ?

  • Charles_Gould


    Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying to me.

  • tacapall

    Charles your getting into a hissy fit over OTR letters but you dont seem to be in the same fit over pardons which wasn’t in the GFA either.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    cynic2’s right: not so much shambolic as deceitful. It seems parliament and elected representative have been deliberately misled in order to hide the scheme from the public. If a criminal prosecutions are possible, we should be thinking in those terms. While the chief constable, the Minister of Justice and the First Minister were in the dark, a succession of secretaries of state knew about this, had a duty to inform parliament (not to mention the public) – and failed to do so. In Peter Hain’s case, it seems he was instrumental in setting it up. Serious punishment is needed to make the point – and we need a LOT of reassurance this won’t be allowed to happen again.

  • tacapall

    “Prime minister ‘wooing’ Democratic Unionists in case of hung parliament. Support from the fourth largest party in Westminster could become crucial for David Cameron’s survival”

    Now we know who rolled the snowballs for the government to use the McConville family as political cannon fodder in exchange for DUP support in the event of a hung parliament.

  • aquifer

    Anybody else want to trade a vanishingly small prospect of convictions to chop off the long slimy tail of the troubles?

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    No – because revisiting what really happened in the Troubles, as I think we need to now, it’s not so much about getting convictions as:
    (1) creating a space for the truth to breathe
    (2) ending the sense of justification the former paramilitaries seem to feel about their role
    (3) reassuring victims’ families that what happened to them is more important than any other consideration.
    Convictions are a small part of that; but more importantly, saying now there will be no convictions would be the death of any hope of achieving these things. Hope is important, I think.

  • Morpheus

    Hope (and being used as political footballs) is what is preventing the families from moving on. The harsh reality is that sufficient evidence to convict simply does not exist in most cases otherwise it would have been used by now.

    1. If there is sufficient evidence to secure a conviction then convict.

    2. If there is no evidence then inform the families that there is no chance of conviction so they can move on.

    3. If there is insufficient evidence to convict at this time then keep whatever evidence does exist ‘on ice’ so that advances in technology can maybe help at a later stage.

  • George

    It is worrying, and speaks to the failings of the local educational system, that some people obviously believe that Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne and not Queen Elizabeth II.

    Maybe these people are canny Scots and, accordingly, more educated folk who know there has never been a Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland.