Stormont debates on-the-run letters

Stormont Assembly members will convene for a special debate today on the controversy over the Government's handling of on-the-run republican terror suspects.

The devolved legislature was recalled for the additional sitting following a request by Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson at the height of this week's political crisis surrounding a scheme that saw letters sent to more than 180 individuals advising them they could return to Northern Ireland without fear of prosecution.

When Mr Robinson made the announcement on Wednesday, shortly after he had threatened to resign over the issue, there were fears the future of the power-sharing executive would be on the line during the plenary session.

But those concerns receded last night when the Democratic Unionist leader withdrew his ultimatum in response to an announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron that he was ordering a judge-led review of the matter.

Mr Robinson, whose resignation would have seen the institutions fold, and likely a snap Assembly election, claimed assurances he had received from the Government about the letters had now rendered them effectively "worthless".

Sinn Fein, the other main partner in the mandatory five-party coalition, had accused the DUP and other political rivals of "grandstanding" on the issue and claimed the threat of collapsing the Executive was a ruse to distract the public from the fact they all already knew about the process to deal with the on-the-runs (OTRs).

Mr Robinson said the deluge of calls his party had received from victims and other members of the public demonstrated there was nothing "synthetic" about the crisis.

With Sinn Fein likely to be pitted against the majority of other MLAs in the Assembly, the plenary session at Stormont will still undoubtedly be heated.

As well as commissioning the review, the Government said it would be making clear to all those who had received a letter in the past, as part of a deal Sinn Fein struck with the previous Labour administration, that if evidence now existed, or emerged in the future, which linked them to an offence, they could be questioned or prosecuted.

Mr Robinson claimed that move represented a fundamental change to how the scheme had operated before.

"I think that makes it clear that they have a fairly worthless piece of paper," he said.

Details of 187 letters sent to OTRs emerged when the case against a man charged with the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing collapsed.

John Downey, 62, from Donegal, denied murdering four soldiers in the attack in London.

The case against him was ended because government officials mistakenly sent him one of the assurance letters in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.

But the collapse shone the light on the wider policy of sending such letters to on-the-runs, with many politicians in Northern Ireland reacting with fury, claiming the scheme was operating without their knowledge.

The judge appointed by Mr Cameron will report by the end of May.

Last night Sinn Fein Assembly Member Alex Maskey described the review announced by the Prime Minister as "unnecessary".

"This announcement is a political fig leaf for the DUP to try and get them off the hook they jumped on to over the past few days," he said.

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