UK to open probe into secret deal for IRA fugitives; eases pressure on Northern Ireland leader

The British government says it will appoint a judge to investigate its long-secret policy of supplying letters to Irish Republican Army fugitives promising them protection from arrest, an issue threatening to derail Northern Ireland's unity government.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced the measure Thursday following furious Protestant reaction in Northern Ireland to this week's exposure of the decade-old peacemaking policy.

The government now says 187 IRA fugitives received letters assuring them they could travel into British territory, including Northern Ireland, without fear of arrest for past crimes. The policy became public when a London judge dismissed murder charges against an IRA man because he had such a letter.

The Protestant leader of Northern Ireland's government, Peter Robinson, had threatened to resign Friday unless Cameron authorized an investigation.