Unionists knew about comfort letters says IRA bombing suspect

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Unionist leaders knew about controversial letters to on-the-run republicans clearing them to travel to the UK, Hyde Park bombing suspect John Downey has said.

In his first full-length interview since the Old Bailey case against him collapsed, Mr Downey said he was given his so-called “comfort letter” just days after the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up.

“As far as the Unionists saying that they didn’t know about the letters, of course they knew,” he said.

“I got the letter in 2007, having applied through Sinn Fein in 2003, four years later the application was granted as part of an ongoing process.”

Mr Downey, a member of Sinn Fein, was arrested at Gatwick Airport in May last year and charged with planting the explosive that ripped through Hyde Park in 1982, killing Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright, Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper and Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young.

But his trial for the IRA attack spectacularly collapsed last month sparking near chaos in Downing Street and Northern Ireland’s devolved government.

A judge ruled he could not stand trial as he had been given assurancesby the Police Service of Northern Ireland he was not wanted for questioning or prosecution in the United Kingdom despite the Met police holding a warrant for his arrest.

Mr Downey, 62, told his local newspaper the Donegal Democrat he does not know why he was arrested.

“As far as the letter is concerned this was an arrangement between the British and Irish Government and my arrest was a breach of the agreement reached between the British and Irish government,” he said.

Mr Downey, a father of three and former oyster farmer from Creeslough, Co Donegal, said he became an active member of the IRA after watching news reports as a teenager. “I could see, at that time, that nothing was going to be accomplished by peaceful means and we had to fight fire with fire.”

He was jailed for IRA membership in 1974 but he says he later became dedicated to the peace process and worked to persuade others to give up violence.