NIO minister John Spellar came under increased pressure last night (Friday) after nationalists rounded on his refusal to publicly discuss his role in the decision to allow two convicted killers to remain in the British army.
Mr Spellar yesterday refused a fourth request from the Irish News to be interviewed on his involvement in the decision to allow Scots Guardsmen Mark Wright and James Fisher to re-main in the army despite having been convicted of the September 1992 murder of north Belfast teenager Peter McBride.
During a meeting with the dead man's family earlier this week, Mr Spellar told Mr McBride's mother Jean that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had not taken any decision in relation to the future careers of her son's killers.
Mrs McBride later asked how she then received a letter from the MoD dated August 7, four days before the meeting with Mr Spellar informing her that no further action is to be taken against her son's killers by the army despite a crucial court ruling.
The army allowed the men to remain as soldiers, citing special circumstances in the case. But the appeal court, while not forcing an MoD rethink, ruled in June that no such circumstances existed.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP last night warned that Mr Spellar's position was becoming increasingly untenable as he continues to remain silent on the issue.
"John Spellar's failure to answer the McBride family's questions at the recent meeting is compounded by his silence now and his failure to explain himself," the SDLP's Alex Attwood said.
"A minister with little credibility is fast running out of any authority."
Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly accused Mr Spellar of abdicating his ministerial duty by refusing to answer questions regarding his role surrounding the decision to allow the Scots Guardsmen to remain as soldiers.
"It is well known that John Spellar was heavily involved in the decision to allow Peter McBride's killers to remain in the British army," he said.
"The fact that John Spellar is now refusing to answer questions about his role in this whole affair is clearly not good enough."
But responding to nationalist criticisms of Mr Spellar, an NIO spokeswoman said: "John Spellar made it clear from his arrival at the NIO that the issue of Fisher and Wright was a matter for the Ministry of Defence.
"He did so at a press conference in response to a question from the media."
Denying that he had prior knowledge of the decision not to take any further action against Mr McBride's killers, the spokeswoman said: "The minister learnt of the ministerial decision of the Ministry of Defence in relation to Fisher and Wright on August 14, three days after his meeting with Mrs McBride."
Meanwhile, the Irish government last night expressed serious concern over Thursday's decision.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Affair's department said that minister Brian Cowen would be raising the matter with the British government as a matter of urgency.