John Downey should never have been brought before a court, Sinn Fein insisted last night. But while the republican party welcomed the decision not to pursue the prosecution of a man it described as a valued member and long time advocate of peace, the Democratic Unionists described the outcome of the case as a "sad day for the victims of terrorism".
Not unexpectedly the Old Bailey ruling has been met with contrasting reactions from the two main partners in Stormont's mandatory power-sharing executive. Sinn Fein Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy said the arrest and charge of Mr Downey was a clear breach of the commitments given by the UK government at the Weston Park talks of 2001 not to pursue so called on-the-runs (OTRs).
"Following the Good Friday Agreement both the British and Irish governments accepted that the issue of those defined as OTRs was an anomaly and the two governments committed to resolve the issue," he said. "A process was put in place to deal with outstanding cases including that of John Downey. Sinn Fein made it clear from the outset that the decision to prosecute John Downey was the wrong one.
"This position has been vindicated by the decision of the judge ruling in John's favour. John Downey should now be allowed to return home to his family immediately."
However Stormont First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson claimed the republican had been handed a "get out of jail free card" by former prime minister Tony Blair's government. He said justice should not have a "sell by date".
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"This conclusion is an outrage and a dark day for justice in the United Kingdom," he said. "It is little wonder that some have lost faith in our justice system. Mr Downey was being tried for one of the most heinous atrocities of the Troubles, but has now invoked a get out of jail free card which he and his cohorts were handed by Tony Blair's government.
"As has been witnessed in recent days throughout the United Kingdom, Blair could not be trusted. The letters his government issued to some terrorists were ill-conceived. No one should be above the law and everyone should be equal under the law however this shortsighted and irresponsible process has now denied justice to victims of PIRA terrorism."
Ulster Unionist Party Assembly member Tom Elliott said revelations that 187 terror suspects were given written assurances by the British Government when Peter Hain was Northern Ireland secretary were a "disgrace".
"This news is an appalling indictment of Peter Hain and the past Labour Government in their behind the scenes dealings. It also raises questions about who was involved in this decision-making process," he said. "The fingerprints of the Northern Ireland Office are all over this. Whoever they are, wherever they are, they should be sacked. Who instructed them to write the letter? They had no right whatsoever to do this.
"The scale of this is breath-taking. We are not talking about an isolated cases but 187 letters issued." He said Hyde Park represented a brutal and savage crime and added no piece of paper should be allowed to shield Mr Downey from justice.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said: "Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 it was publicly accepted by the British and Irish governments that an anomaly existed in respect of those who are described as OTRs (On the Runs). Both governments gave firm commitments to deal with this matter.
"A process was put in place to deal with outstanding cases, including that of John Downey. The arrest of John Downey by the London police was in clear breach of this and of the commitments given by the British government in 2004 during the peace process negotiations at Weston Park and in subsequent negotiations.
"John Downey should never have been arrested and this has been vindicated by the court decision."Suggest a correction