100 IRA fugitives protected from arrest are linked to 300 murders, say Northern Ireland police
Police admit 95 IRA members protected from arrest under deal with Blair government are suspects in unsolved killings from 1969 to 1998
Nearly 100 IRA fugitives who were given "letters of comfort" from Tony Blair's British government stating they were no longer wanted for past crimes are suspects in nearly 300 murder cases, a senior police commander has admitted.
In testimony to British lawmakers on Wednesday, Drew Harris, assistant chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), initially said the suspects in the "get-out-of-jail" scheme were linked to 200 murder investigations.
But soon afterwards, the PSNI was forced to clarify Harris' Westminster testimony by pointing out that these 95 IRA recipients of the letters were in fact of interest in connection with 295 killings during The Troubles between 1969 and 1998.
Northern Ireland's top police officers were giving evidence to Parliament's Northern Ireland select committee about the secret scheme Blair's administration hatched with Republican political party Sinn Fein as part of a wider deal to secure IRA decommissioning of arms and later, Sinn Fein's support for policing and the rule of law.
The scheme was exposed in the recent collapse of the prosecution relating to the 1982 bomb atrocity in London's Hyde Park, which killed four soldiers. John Downey was released in February after his legal team produced a letter from 2007, which guaranteed he should not be prosecuted.
Harris told lawmakers 228 people had received the amnesty letters. He said some were "notorious, without a doubt" before revealing that "95 of these individuals are linked in some way or other to 200 murder investigations. But that linkage may only be intelligence. And all of that is now being assessed."
On hearing that figure, Ian Paisley Jnr, the Democratic Unionist party lawmaker, told the committee: "I must say, it breaks my heart today, as a citizen of Northern Ireland, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, that 95 people are holding letters excusing the murder of 200 people. That breaks my heart." Shortly after the hearing ended, the PSNI released a clarification that said: "A review is currently under way of the 228 names involved in Operation Rapid - 95 of these are linked to 200 incidents involving 295 murders. The link can take a number of forms, including intelligence."
Sitting alongside Harris, his chief constable, Matt Baggott, added that only five individuals who had received the letters were now wanted as part of live police investigations for serious crimes including murder. Harris also confirmed only one letter recipient had been convicted for a past Troubles crime.
The chief constable said a thorough investigation - "Operation Redfield" - was under way into every IRA suspect who got the so-called "get-out-of-jail" letter. He admitted that on this matter the police had "failed".
But Baggott stressed that the PSNI would not give up on investigations into unsolved Troubles-related crimes before 1998, despite the Downey judgment.
The issue of "get-out-of-jail" cards for IRA fugitives wanted for murder has become one of the most controversial issues from the past to haunt the Northern Ireland peace process.
Some victims of IRA violence have begun legal action to test the legal validity of the scheme.
Elizabeth Morrison - a 79-year-old grandmother who lost three members of her family in the IRA bomb on Belfast's loyalist Shankill Road in 1993 just two days after her husband died - has filed papers challenging the deal at Belfast high court.