The trial of the man accused of the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing in 1982, John Downey, was abandoned Tuesday because the Donegal man – arrested at Gatwick Airport last year – had been given a letter of immunity ‘by mistake’.
Reporting restrictions – which were in force while the case was considered by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve – were lifted when the court ruled it would be an abuse of process for the 62-year old Donegal man to be tried.
He was one around 200 IRA members – so-called “on-the-runs” (OTRs) – received guarantees they would not be prosecuted for historic crimes as one of the conditions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and Weston Park talks.
But it emerged that in 2007 Mr. Downey, from Cresslough in Donegal, received his written guarantee from Northern Ireland’s Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) because it had not realised he was still being sought by Scotland Yard for the bombing.
He travelled through British airports on at least seven occasions between 2010 and his arrest in 2013.
The presiding judge Mr. Justice Sweeney said the issuing of the letter by the PSNI had been a “catastrophic failure” for which he had not received a “sensible explanation” despite being caught in 2008 and 2009 but never corrected.
The families of the four murdered Blues and Royals troopers Lieutenant Anthony Daly, 23, Staff Corporal Roy Bright, 36, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young, 19, and Trooper Simon Tipper, 19, expressed “great sadness and bitter disappointment” and said it denied them of their last hope for justice.
Mr. Justice Sweeney said that Mr. Downey was entitled to rely on his letter of assurance.
He said: “The public interest in ensuring that those who are accused of serious crime should be tried is a very strong one … However, in the very particular circumstances of this case it seems to me that it is very significantly outweighed in the balancing exercise by the overlapping public interests in ensuring that executive misconduct does not undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system and bring it into disrepute, and the public interest in holding officials of the state to promises they have made in full understanding of what is involved in the bargain.”
Among those who had pressed for the case against Mr Downey to be thrown out were former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain and Jonathan Powell, who had been Tony Blair’s chief of staff and the key British negotiator in the peace process.
Mr Powell told the court that the letters to the on-the-runs were intended to “reassure the individuals concerned that they could return to the UK without fear of arrest”.
The process of building peace depended on trust, said Mr Powell, adding: “If either side reneges on its undertakings or fails to implement what it has promised to do, trust can be fatally undermined”.
Mr Hain said the mistake in granting a letter to Downey was something that should have been corrected. The peace process, he said, relied on each side fulfilling its guarantees and adhering to its promises.
He added: “I can confirm, the British government did not intend individuals to be misled into believing they were safe to return to the jurisdiction and then be arrested. The opposite was the case.”
Mr Downey pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder and one of causing an explosion and had the trial gone ahead would have denied any involvement in the Hyde Park bombing. His defence team said significant doubts existed over the quality of the evidence and many witnesses in the case had died.
Sir Hugh Orde, who was chief constable of Northern Ireland at the time the error was made in giving Mr Downey an effective amnesty, said: “It is a matter of great personal regret that a crucial oversight was made by a senior officer which resulted in erroneous information being sent to Mr Downey by the Northern Ireland Office and thus prejudicing the current indictment.”
The families of the four Blues and Royals troopers killed in the Hyde Park blast said in a statement: “The end result of that is the opportunity for the full chain of those terrible events will never be put in the public domain for justice to be seen to be done.”