Depends what the judges say about comfort letters, doesn’t it?

Hundreds of IRA terrorism suspects will learn they no longer have immunity from prosecution as the Government announces that hundreds of controversial “comfort letters” are to be rescinded.

Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will tell MPs the letters, issued to individuals suspected of terrorist offences committed before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, are worthless.

Suspects are to be told that the letters, which informed them they were unlikely to face prosecution unless new evidence against them came to light, have been annulled and are “not worth the paper they are written on”.

New letters are now likely to be issued telling terrorist suspects that police will be prepared to mount a prosecution should officers believe there is already enough evidence against them to do so.

That’s all terribly well and good. but it’s not actually ministers who decide whether such letters are binding or not, is it? It’s judges:

Their existence became known after the prosecution of a suspected Hyde Park bomber collapsed amid widespread anger in February when it emerged he had been sent one of the letters.

John Downey, 62, from Donegal, was arrested last year as he passed through Gatwick airport and charged with the murder of four British soldiers in the 1982 bombing.

The case against him was thrown out by a senior judge when it became known he had received a comfort letter. The letter had in fact been sent to him by mistake, as the Metropolitan Police still had a warrant for his arrest over the Hyde Park outrage, which killed four soldiers of the Blues and Royals, who were on ceremonial duties at the time.

 

So what’s the likelihood that those minsters have actually bothered to get a legal opinion on this? Me, given the current shambles, I’d put it at about zero percent.

 

Simply because they’re such damn fools that they don’t understand that they are constrained by the law.

 

I have no idea at all whether the government can in fact say “Ha Ha, just fooling about those letters Paddy!” nor what the courts will say about their having done so. But I’m near certain that they won’t have bothered to check.

10 comments on “Depends what the judges say about comfort letters, doesn’t it?

  1. She’s trying it on knowing it is probably illegal. If she has not taken legal advice it will be because she does not want to know. When it gets overturned by judges she will blame then and the Europeans or something. Like I said yesterday, politicians now see lying as a news management technique. The heiress to Blair.

  2. Further to Frederick’s point – it isn’t what the judges say that is important (in political terms.) It is what the Daily Hate says.

    By the time this makes its way to be rejected by the Supreme Court, not only will they have got the kudos for a populist measure, but they will have had one or two goes at soft-on-terror judges, the ECHR, and the voting will be over.

    I really wish reality didn’t mean that being this cynical was sensible …

  3. Hasn’t Cameron fired an attorney general and a solicitor general? Outside politics, changing your lawyer is usually a sign that you don’t like the advice you’re getting i.e that you’ll lose.

  4. A letter of comfort is a lesser or weaker instrument than a letter of guarantee in terms of the security if affords. If memory serves, a guarantee is a contingent liability on the balance sheet of the issuer whereas a comfort letter is not.

    So it rather looks as though the judge in the example given may have taken the view (as who wouldn’t) that Government was issuing a reprieve in order to get the peace process underway and allow IRA criminals to emerge indemnified into the light of day.

    Having achieved this objective – and you can argue either way about whether this was or was not a good idea – it would be at best duplicitous for these letters of comfort to be rescinded now.

  5. Question is, are the comfort letters merely legal or are they also part of a political policy? If the latter, then surely the important point is that no parliament shall be bound by its predecessors.

  6. Squander Two: Question is, are the comfort letters merely legal or are they also part of a political policy? If the latter, then surely the important point is that no parliament shall be bound by its predecessors.

    I don’t think that’s quite right. What Government has done is done. What Government cannot do is bind a future administration to future action.

    If this weren’t so, the debts incurred by one lot could be repudiated by the next lot as in Argentina which creates problems in public administration that no number of excellent steaks can palliate.

  7. So what are BluLabour up to if not trying to float a “tough-on -terror” propaganda turd?
    Are they trying to re-start the Troubles–because we haven’t got enough problems to be going on with?
    Without having any sympathy for Irish Marxists–if I was a “retired” terrorist who’d been given a letter of what amounts to amnesty for past crimes in return for not doing any future ones (beyond ordinary drug-dealing and protection rackets which seem to be their pension plan) I would not be very happy to hear that some stupid BluLabour cow was talking about not honouring the deal.

  8. John Downey, 62, from Donegal, was arrested last year as he passed through Gatwick airport and charged with the murder of four British soldiers in the 1982 bombing.

    Bless. No doubt he was among those calling for the Bloody Sunday paratroopers to be face justice. Sauce for the goose, and all that.

    Not that my lack of sympathy for him has any bearing on the point of the post, mind.

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