Bail scandal: police waited 11 days after house search to act

Damien McLaughlin
Damien McLaughlin

Police waited 11 days after searching the largely-empty bail address of a paramilitary suspect before telling government lawyers he was missing.

The DUP’s Westminster security spokesman Jeffrey Donaldson said that this latest revelation, and those before it, demand answers from police.

However the PSNI have not explained the delay between this search and contacting prosecutors, who then went on to arrange a hearing to have his bail revoked.

At that hearing last Friday, Belfast Crown Court was told that Damien Joseph McLaughlin – who is due to stand trial in connection to the murder of David Black next month – had last been seen by police on November 18.

The court heard officers then called to his bail address in west Belfast on December 23 to find it had been “effectively been cleared out”.

Milk which was four weeks out of date was in the fridge.

McLaughlin’s family – including his uncles who provided sureties for him – could not assist in locating him.

Now the News Letter can reveal that despite the evidence gleaned from this December 23 search, the PSNI only notified the PPS about his disappearance on January 3.

The News Letter asked the PPS if this delay could perhaps have been an issue with the availability of its staff over the Christmas period.

It responded: “We have no reason to believe that availability of PPS staff was an issue in this case. The PPS has mechanisms to deal with out of hours queries, including over holiday periods.

“We would advise you to contact PSNI for any questions surrounding notification in this instance.”

Whilst courts were closed during the Christmas and New year holidays, provisions were in place to facilitate bail hearings if required.

The PSNI have declined to offer any reason for the gap before notifying prosecutors, or to explain why five weeks elapsed between McLaughlin last signing bail and them searching his address on December 23.

The News Letter has asked a battery of questions of the police ever since the story broke, and on Tuesday they said they had visited the Black family in person to apologise for the handling of the case.

Whilst they have said “active enquiries” are under way to establish McLaughlin’s whereabouts, they said they are “limited in what we can comment on publicly due to the ongoing legal proceedings”

McLaughlin, 40 and from Kilmascally Road in Co Tyrone, has pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting the murder of prison officer David Black and three other charges.

Upon hearing of the latest details of the fiasco, Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, said: “I must say I’m alarmed by how this case has been handled; first of all, I don’t believe the accused should ever have been granted bail by the courts.”

He added that it was “just remarkable that the police did not check up regularly on the suspect” while he was on bail and that, having discovered his address had been cleared out, “the PPS ought to have been informed immediately that this had happened”.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the justice minister Claire Sugden continued her silence on the subject in the face of renewed requests from the News Letter for her to speak – or at least for her department to reveal what has become of a proposed review into bail for terror suspects which was first mooted in summer 2016.