Bail fiasco: ‘I’m not scared to speak’ says minister after week-long silence

Claire Sugden was eventually prompted into commenting on the bail fiasco

Claire Sugden was eventually prompted into commenting on the bail fiasco

The justice minister has told MLAs she is “not scared” to speak out strongly over the scandal surrounding Damien McLaughlin’s disappearance – even though she had refused to say anything for a week.

Speaking in the Assembly on Tuesday, Claire Sugden (an independent MLA who took up the justice post in May), also said a review into bail matters in Northern Ireland should be complete by spring.

As reported continually over the last 10 days by the News Letter, Damien Joseph McLaughlin (40 and from Kilmascally Road in the Ardboe area of Tyrone) is currently missing ahead of his trial on February 20.

He denies four alleged offences in connection with the killing of prison officer David Black in November 2012.

He was first in court in December 2012, released on bail in May 2014, and his bail conditions were then watered down over time, including removing his tagging device.

He was last seen on November 18, 2016, but police did not raise the alarm with the PPS until January 3 so his bail could be revoked – a failure they have so far offered no explanation for.

The minister told MLAs: “The operational decision does not rest with me; ultimately, bail decisions rest with the courts and the PSNI.

“That said, I am appalled by what has happened. I am not scared to say that, even though I am stepping outside my jurisdiction in the matter.

“I made my feelings clear to the chief constable when this was allowed to happen. I can assure the member that I have a focus on the issue to ensure that it will not happen again.”

The News Letter had repeatedly pressed the Department of Justice (DoJ) for answers about the scandal from last Monday onwards, including asking if the minister had anything to say on it.

Even so, it was not until Thursday they sent a response – but it did not say anything about the minister’s views.

It was not until Friday – seven days after news of McLaughlin’s disappearance broke – that she issued a fairly bland statement, saying she was “deeply concerned”.

The News Letter had also asked the DoJ what became of a review which the department had been tasked to carry out last summer into the granting of bail for serious alleged offenders. The DoJ only said this was “ongoing”.

But in the Assembly on Monday, Ms Sugden gave more details, saying it began in October, and should end by March.