A man accused of killing four soldiers in London’s Hyde Park will not be prosecuted after being wrongly told that he was not wanted by the police.
John Downey, who has previously been convicted of IRA membership, was given assurances he would not be pursued over the 1982 bombing, leading to the case being thrown out by the high court on Tuesday.
Families of the victims said they felt “devastatingly let down” after the prosecution announced it would not appeal against the decision.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Matt Baggott said the force accepted “full responsibility ” for failures that resulted in the collapse of the prosecution.
He said: “We will be referring this matter to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. I wish to apologise to the families of the victims and survivors of the Hyde Park atrocity. I deeply regret these failings which should not have happened.”
Mr Downey, 62, of County Donegal, had wrongly received a “letter of assurance” in 2007 when there was an outstanding warrant against him.
Despite regularly travelling to the UK and Northern Ireland since then, in May last year he was arrested at Gatwick Airport en route to Greece and charged. He “strenuously” denies the murder of four British soldiers and causing an explosion.
The judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, threw out the case after Mr Downey’s lawyer successfully argued at the eleventh hour that the defendant should not go on trial at the Old Bailey.
At an earlier hearing, Henry Blaxland QC warned there would be political ramifications in Northern Ireland if the case against him was pursued, saying the false assurance he received was “not just negligent, it was downright reckless”.
Mr Justice Sweeney said the public interest in prosecuting him was “very significantly outweighed” by “holding officials of the state to promises they have made in the full understanding of what is involved in the bargain”.
The PSNI knew about the UK arrest warrant for Mr Downey, but did nothing to correct the error of 2007.
Hyde Park Bombing
In July 1982, a car bomb left in South Carriage Drive killed the soldiers as they rode through Hyde Park to the changing of the guard.
The explosion killed Roy Bright, Dennis Daly, Simon Tipper and Jeffrey Young and injured other members of the Royal Household Cavalry.
Seven horses were also killed as the soldiers travelled from their barracks to Buckingham Palace.
Mr Downey was one of 187 so-called “On the Runs” (OTRs) to seek clarification from the authorities in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Blaxland said: “Sinn Fein impresses it is impossible to overstate the importance of the assurances given to the 187 people.”
Warning of the political fallout if a trial went ahead, Mr Blaxland said: “Once the trust starts to break down the whole edifice starts to crumble.”
The court heard he was a strong supporter of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Relatives of the four soldiers said in a statement: “It is with great sadness and bitter disappointment that we have received the full and detailed judgment and that a trial will now not take place.
“This news has left us all feeling devastatingly let down, even more so when the monumental blunder behind this judgement lies at the feet of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).”