Heather Hallett’s review into the ‘on-the-run’ controversy suggests the terms of reference of Operation Rapid - set up in 2007 by former Waterside policeman Peter Sheridan - ‘arguably set too high a threshold for the arrest and questioning of suspects.’
The review - completed after the controversial arrest and collapsed trial of Creeslough-based John Downey - also suggests that Mr Sheridan was unlikely to have been made aware of the fact that Mr Downey was ‘wanted’ for the Hyde Park bombing during the course of Operation Rapid.
The review report concludes that the Operation Rapid team in 2007/08 - of which the then Assistant Chief Constable Mr Sheridan was an integral member - reviewed “a large number of cases far more quickly than their predecessors had done.”
The Appeal Court Judge states that: “One of the Operation Rapid terms of reference for 2007/08 arguably set too high a threshold for the arrest and questioning of suspects.”
Back in April the Sentinel reported how the 1985 arrest of a Londonderry republican helped inform the terms of reference of Operation Rapid and how Mr Sheridan was particularly concerned that the PSNI adhere to more rigorous standards before arresting individuals.
Mr Sheridan told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in April that: “If somebody was listed as wanted in the late 1970s, that might not stand the test of a case in 2007.”
He told the Committee that a wrongful arrest and false imprisonment case taken by Gerard O’Hara, against the former RUC Chief Constable John Hermon had transformed the landscape.
Mr Sheridan explained: “There was a string of cases like O’Hara v Chief Constable where that changed, and the legislation changed from being that a constable just had to suspect to a constable having to have reasonable grounds, so it became stronger in legislation that the individual police officer had to have personal, reasonable grounds, not simply to suspect.”
The Hallett report, however, suggests that the rigour arising from this case helped set the bar too high under Operation Rapid.
It concludes: “Although the sub-paragraph in the terms of reference relating to intelligence correctly identified the legal threshold for the arrest of a suspect, other sub-paragraphs emphasised the need to ‘withstand a legal challenge within a judicial process in Northern Ireland.’
“This created the risk that too high a threshold might be applied to the consideration of individual cases, including those that were solely based on intelligence.
“Until the PSNI has concluded its lengthy review of all of the decisions previously made, it is too early to say whether an incorrect threshold was applied at any time, including in 2007/08.”
The report also suggests that under Operation Rapid it would have been unlikely the “ultimate decision maker” on the Downey case - Mr Sheridan - would unlikely have been given material confirming the Donegal based suspect was wanted for the Hyde Park case.
“In the absence of any accompanying guidance document, the Operation Rapid terms of reference did not make clear what material was to be put before the ultimate PSNI decision- maker – namely ACC Peter Sheridan.
“I cannot now ascertain what material he saw in Mr Downey’s case, but it appears highly unlikely that he was made aware of the fact that Mr Downey was ‘wanted’ for the Hyde Park bombing,” the report states.