Last updated: February 27, 2014 2:30 pm

Ministers in Northern Ireland meet for crisis talks

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Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson©PA

Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson

Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, pledged on Thursday to consider a judicial inquiry into allegations that the UK government granted pardons to IRA terror suspects without the knowledge of the devolved assembly.

Theresa Villiers, Northern Ireland secretary, is to meet Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, to discuss the power sharing crisis in the province.

The talks follow the collapse of the trial of a suspect in the IRA Hyde Park bombing more than 30 years ago, which prompted a threat to resign by Peter Robinson, first minister.

Mr Robinson has threatened to quit unless London authorises a judicial review into what happened. He requested the recall of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly after claiming a UK deal involved the granting of royal pardons to IRA suspects, known as ‘on the runs’.

He and other Stormont ministers say they were left in the dark over the secret deal that saw government letters of assurance given to more than 180 Irish republican paramilitary suspects that led them to believe they would not be prosecuted.

Mr Robinson, leader of the loyalist DUP, has given the government until Thursday night to open a judicial inquiry into the letters. “I want a full judicial inquiry to find out who knew, when they knew and what they knew. I want to know who they are and what crimes they are believed to have committed.”

Mr Clegg told Sky News the government would “urgently look at’’ the possibility of a judicial inquiry, adding: “I certainly appreciate how serious this is, how this provokes very strong emotions, dismay, outrage among the victims’ relatives and families. We do want to make sure that we do everything to get to the bottom of exactly what did and didn’t happen.”

But Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin deputy first minister, called for “steady leadership” and “calm nerves”, urging Mr Robinson not to step down.

Mr McGuinness insisted that unionist politicians knew about the “on the runs” scheme, even if they may not have known about the specific letters.

The case against John Downey collapsed because government officials had mistakenly written to him in 2007 saying he was no longer a wanted man.

Mr Downey, a former IRA member, denied any involvement in the Hyde Park car bomb which caused the death of four soldiers and seven horses from the Household Cavalry, as well as leaving numerous people injured, in July 1982.

Downing Street has confirmed that Owen Paterson, the Tory former Northern Ireland secretary, had known that 38 of 187 letters had been sent since 2010. But an official said the process that led to those letters had begun before the last general election.

Mr Robinson called for all letters sent out to be rescinded and demanded “full disclosure” of what had happened. He said the DUP would never have entered into a power-sharing agreement in 2007 with Sinn Féin, its arch-enemy, if it had known about the letters.

David Trimble, former first minister, insisted on Thursday he knew “absolutely nothing’’ of the letters, and said he believed the government had conspired with Sinn Féin.

“I would dearly love to know who signed off on that,” Lord Trimble told the BBC’s Today programme. “I don’t know anybody who knew about it.”

The ex-UUP leader said the issue of how to deal with on-the-run suspects went “below the horizon” after 2005.

He referred to a passage in a book by Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, claiming that Ian Paisley and Mr Robinson said during a 2006 conversation: “We know you’re going to do something with these people but we don’t want to know.”

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