Crisis: First Minister Peter Robinson in 24-hour deadline to save Northern Ireland Assembly (Belfast Telegraph)

First Minister demands to know what Villiers will do about the on-the-runs crisis as Stormont teeters

Stormont is teetering on the edge of collapse after the First Minister issued the Government with a 24-hour deadline following revelations that almost 200 terror suspects on the run from justice were told they would not be prosecuted if they returned home.

Peter Robinson’s ultimatum came just hours after he threatened to resign following the abandoned prosecution of convicted IRA man John Downey.

The case against Downey collapsed because Government officials mistakenly sent him a letter in 2007 telling him he was no longer a wanted man.

After a one-hour showdown with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers at Hillsborough Castle last night, Mr Robinson said he had given the Government a day to state what it intended to do about the situation.

Facing his biggest crisis since becoming First Minister, Mr Robinson said he had asked the Stormont Speaker to recall the Assembly tomorrow to debate the deepening crisis.

In a night of high drama, he said the contents of the motion he would put before the Assembly at the specially convened session would depend on how the Government responded to his demand.

He said he’d talk to other parties about the content of the motion.

Last night the Northern Ireland Office said that the last letter of assurance to an ‘on-the-run’ had been sent in December 2012, and the scheme has now ended.

However, the crisis could still deepen further after the DUP leader also raised Royal Pardons, which he said had been used to grant IRA terror suspects an effective amnesty for offences. “It appears that we are not just dealing with on-the-runs who received letters, but we are also dealing with people who received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy – that indicates there were offences involved,” he said.

“So we are not talking just about people who it is believed that the police did not have sufficient evidence to make a prosecution stick – that makes it a very serious matter.”

But the use of Royal Pardons for republican on-the-runs has been known about for years.

The Belfast Telegraph published the first documented evidence that Royal Pardons were granted to on-the-runs in early 2010. Earlier, Mr Robinson said he would walk away from his post unless the Government granted a full judicial inquiry into how on-the-runs were dealt with.

He demanded that official letters assuring them they would not be prosecuted in the UK be rescinded.

The case against Hyde Park bombing suspect John Downey was withdrawn after it emerged he had received a “letter of assurance” in 2007 from the Northern Ireland Office informing him that he was not being sought by the police. In fact, it had been issued in error.

There was an outstanding warrant against Downey from the Metropolitan Police – but the judge ruled the letter should be honoured.

Four soldiers were killed in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing. Their families have described the mistake as a “monumental blunder”.

After it emerged that Downey was one of almost 200 to have been sent a letter of comfort, Mr Robinson said: “I am not prepared to be the person who heads up a government not knowing matters which are totally relevant, completely relevant, to the job that we are doing, having responsibility for policing and justice.

“The despicable way that the Government has treated the institutions in Northern Ireland shows that they don’t uphold the institutions in Northern Ireland.”

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