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Northern Ireland set for terror 'amnesty' spat

The Parliament building at Stormont in Belfast on December 1, 1999
The Parliament building at Stormont in Belfast on December 1, 1999

Northern Ireland's assembly was to hold an emergency debate Friday over letters sent to on-the-run IRA terror suspects, which threatened to bring down the province's administration.

The devolved legislature in Belfast has been recalled at the request of First Minister Peter Robinson, who threatened to quit over the affair.

Had he done so, the move would almost certainly have collapsed Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive and triggered a snap election.

Prime Minister David Cameron's government on Thursday averted Robinson's resignation by announcing a judge-led investigation into the so-called 'amnesty' letters sent to suspected Irish Republican Army paramilitaries living outside UK jurisdiction.

A fuming Robinson claimed London had kept him in the dark about the letters.

The existence of the letters became public knowledge this week after one of them -- erroneously sent -- caused the collapse of the trial over a deadly 1982 IRA bombing in London.

After Cameron made his announcement, Robinson confirmed he would not be quitting, adding: "I hope we can put this episode behind us."

About 200 fugitive republicans suspected of crimes during Northern Ireland's violent past have received letters informing them that they will not face prosecution if they return to the United Kingdom, because there is not sufficient evidence to prosecute.

Robinson welcomed clarification from the British government that recipients of the letters could still face prosecution if new evidence did emerge about terror offences.

A pedestrian walks near a paramilitary mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland on December 30, 2013
A pedestrian walks near a paramilitary mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland on December 30, 2013

The row erupted on Tuesday when a London judge ruled that John Downey, a 62-year-old suspect in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing that killed four soldiers, should not be prosecuted for the attack.

He cited the fact that Downey had received an official letter while he was on the run in 2007, assuring him he would not face prosecution if he re-entered the UK.

Cameron's government did not appeal the decision. The prime minister said the letter was a "dreadful mistake made by the Police Service of Northern Ireland" -- and promised to examine the whole scheme.

Announcing a judge-led inquiry, Cameron said the probe would be given "full access to government files and officials" and would report back by the end of May. The findings would then be published.

- 'Cock-up' rather than conspiracy -

The Hyde Park bombing ruling caused outrage in Northern Ireland, where most of the 3,500 killings during the so-called Troubles remain unresolved.

The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement largely brought the violence to an end, but sporadic attacks continue and issues of the past remain highly contentious.

Power remains delicately balanced between a number of parties, the biggest two being Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, once the political arm of the now-defunct IRA.

Friday's special sitting of the assembly is likely to be heated, with Sinn Fein set to be pitted against a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, accused Robinson of whipping up the letters row, saying the scheme had long been common knowledge.

Prime Minister David Cameron (left) talks as Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson (R) listens during a press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street in central London on June 14, 2013
Prime Minister David Cameron (left) talks as Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson (R) listens during a press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street in central London on June 14, 2013

A former cabinet minister from the Republic of Ireland, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Guardian newspaper that the Dublin government of the time was unaware of the letters.

But a key figure who helped broker the peace accords said there was no secret amnesty arrangement.

Jonathan Powell, Britain's chief negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, said the letters were "statements of fact, and certainly have nothing to do with an amnesty".

He said parliament was told in 2002 of 32 people who had been told their cases would not be pursued if they returned to the UK.

"Some secret!", he wrote in The Times newspaper.

"John Downey’s release has nothing to do with an amnesty or a secret deal and everything to do with a cock-up. Elevating it to an issue of principle is positively bizarre, all the more so because the facts were in the public domain.

"I very much hope that the Northern Ireland institutions do not collapse over this issue. If they do, it will be the ultimate tragedy of a peace agreement collapsing over a misunderstanding."

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