The case against John Downey for the death of four British soldiers was dropped when it emerged he had mistakenly been given a 'comfort letter'.

The case against John Downey for the death of four British soldiers was dropped when it emerged he had mistakenly been given a 'comfort letter'. Photo: Reuters

London: Hundreds of Irish Republican Army terrorism suspects learnt they no longer have immunity from prosecution on Wednesday as the British government announced that controversial "comfort letters" have been rescinded.

Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was to tell MPs the letters, issued to individuals suspected of terrorist offences committed before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, are worthless.

The Good Friday Agreement effectively ended attempts by the IRA to achieve a united Ireland by military means.

British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers will announce that 'comfort letters' are worthless.

British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers will announce that 'comfort letters' are worthless. Photo: AFP

Suspects are to be told that the letters, which informed them they were unlikely to face prosecution unless new evidence against them came to light, have been annulled and are "not worth the paper they are written on".

New letters are likely to be issued, telling terrorist suspects that police will be prepared to mount a prosecution should officers believe there is enough evidence against them to do so.

It is understood that the historical inquiries branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland is also to conduct a review of all the cases as part of the process of issuing the new letters.

The comfort letters were introduced as a way of dealing with on-the-run suspects who had not been imprisoned for terrorist offences, and released as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Their existence became known after the prosecution of a suspected Hyde Park bomber collapsed amid widespread anger in February when it emerged he had been sent one of the letters.

John Downey, 62, from Donegal, was arrested last year as he passed through Gatwick Airport, and charged with the murder of four British soldiers in the 1982 bombing. However, the case against him was thrown out by a senior judge when it became known he had received a comfort letter informing him he would not be prosecuted.

The letter had, in fact, been sent to him by mistake, as the Metropolitan Police still had a warrant for his arrest over the Hyde Park outrage, which killed four soldiers of the Blues and Royals, who were on ceremonial duties.

Telegraph, London