Gerry McGeough with his family: 'secret deal between the British and Sinn Féin'

The British government has operated a secret scheme granting royal pardons or immunity from prosecution to hand-picked ex-IRA members wanted for killings, bombings and other paramilitary activities, it has been claimed.

Of 216 'on the runs', 47 have been told they are free to return to the North with no fear of prosecution, according to leading Tyrone republican Gerry McGeough.

An ex-IRA gun-runner and former Sinn Féin ard comhairle member, McGeough goes on trial in Belfast tomorrow charged with IRA membership in 1975 and the 1981 attempted murder of UDR man Sammy Brush.

He will be the first republican on trial for historical crimes since the Good Friday Agreement. McGeough said: "Excellent detective work by my lawyers has uncovered that around a fifth of 'on the runs' have been given a royal pardon, immunity from prosecution, or else haven't had to serve their minimum sentence as laid out by the Good Friday Agreement.

"There was a secret deal between the British and Sinn Féin. A meeting was held in a Dundalk hotel. I'm disgusted that hand-picked 'on the runs' have received preferential treatment – and can come home and lead normal lives with their families – while others can't or if they do return are living in fear, always looking over their shoulders."

The Sunday Tribune has seen the names of some of those allegedly given immunity. They include prominent ex-IRA members. A Northern Ireland Office (NIO) spokesman denied the claim. "There is no secret deal to pardon on the runs," he said.

McGeough was arrested at the 2007 Assembly election count. He had stood as an anti-PSNI republican candidate. His lawyers will tomorrow put forward an abuse of process application: "They will argue that my prosecution breaches article six of the European Convention which guarantees a fair trial, and article 14 which guarantees the right not to be discriminated against.

"I've been singled out for prosecution because I am a republican opposed to the political status quo." McGeough said his former Sinn Féin colleagues had offered no support.

"I've been imprisoned in Germany and the US for my republican activities yet Sinn Féin leaders meeting for their ard fheis this weekend are unsupportive because I'm not 'on message'."

Tyrone man Vincent McAnespie was also charged with the attempted murder of Brush and weapons' possession. The first, but not second charge, has since been withdrawn against McAnespie who is pleading not guilty.

In a document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Kevin Winters' solicitors, the NIO says Sinn Féin provided the names of 216 on the runs. The PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service then reviewed files "to determine whether the individual is wanted for questioning, arrest or prosecution".

The NIO said decisions were evidence-based and whether prosecution was in "the public interest".

It claimed "political considerations play no part in this assessment".

McGeough's lawyers are demanding the authorities disclose "all material pertaining to any discussion, meetings and correspondence" relating to decisions not to prosecute certain republicans.

The former head of the PSNI's serious crime squad, Norman Baxter, told a House of Commons' committee last November: "There was an extremely unhealthy interest by (NIO) officials about prioritising individuals who were on the run and ensuring they were cleared to return to the North."