DUBLIN — An Irish Republican Army veteran charged with the IRA killing of four soldiers in London's Hyde Park in 1982 has been freed from custody after a judge ruled that the British government misled the man into thinking he could travel to England without fear of arrest.
London High Court Justice Nigel Sweeney found that Britain's Northern Ireland Office in 2007 provided John Downey with a confidential document promising him he was not wanted for any outstanding IRA crimes.
The judge said Northern Ireland police knew that their London counterparts still wanted to arrest Downey and soon recognized the mistake in the government's letter to Downey, but failed to tell anyone to retract the letter.
He said the document encouraged Downey, who lives in the Republic of Ireland, to fly through London's Gatwick Airport, where he was arrested last year and charged with murder and other terror charges.
Tuesday's 57-page judgment revealed a secret practice by Britain's previous government to provide letters promising safe passage home for scores of IRA members, who had fled Northern Ireland to avoid arrest and since remained fugitives from British justice, living for decades mostly in the Irish Republic.
The Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party had demanded that Britain let these IRA members return home as part of wider peacemaking efforts. Tony Blair's Labour government agreed but failed to get the measure passed by Parliament. So instead it adopted the use of secret letters. Until now, the public had been led to believe that IRA fugitives from justice remained on the British wanted list.
London police used fingerprint and witness evidence to identify Downey as an IRA member involved in the Hyde Park blast, when a nail bomb in a parked car exploded as ceremonial mounted troops passed, mortally wounding four soldiers and seven horses.