If the courts in England had responded to a suspected paramilitary’s requests for bail the way Northern Irish ones have, there would be “public outrage”.
That is the view of former RUC and PSNI man Norman Baxter, who said that the public should be “alarmed” by the judiciary’s handling of the case of Damien McLaughlin, who denies offences in relation to the killing of prison officer David Black.
Wednesday is exactly two months since he was last seen by the PSNI, with whom he had been required to sign bail five times a week.
His long-awaited trial is due to take place next month.
He had been out on bail since spring 2014, and his bail terms were relaxed over the years to reduce his signing days, permit holidays, and remove an electronic monitoring device.
Norman Baxter, a former Detective Chief Superintendent – the highest level of detective, and only one rank below Assistant Chief Constable – said: “The public should be quite alarmed and shocked the judiciary are releasing people charged with such serious crimes.
“And when they’re released it’s very difficult to ensure that they’re going to remain within the jurisdiction and face trial.
“The history of conflict in Northern Ireland is such that quite a number of people have become fugitives to justice by crossing the border.
“And a number of those historically wanted remain across the border.”
McLaughlin had first appeared in court on December 20, 2012, and was held in prison on remand.
On May 2, 2014, the High Court was told that it could take two years for the case to come to trial, and Mr Justice Weatherup said it would be “unwarranted” to keep him on remand for such a long time.
He was then released on bail.
When this rationale was put to Mr Baxter, he said it was “quite surprising it would take two years to prepare papers for prosecution”.
He added: “The courts play an important role in protecting society, and the balance recently seems to have been given towards the rights of the accused, rather than protecting society...
“It’s quite surprising it appears to be a different approach to the granting of bail in murder cases in Northern Ireland than in rest of the UK.
“It’s inconceivable that someone accused in connection with the murder of a prison officer in England would be granted bail without public outrage.”
McLaughlin, 40 and of Kilmascally Road in the Ardboe area of Co Tyrone, had been living at a bail address in west Belfast at the time of his disappearance some time after November 18, 2016.
Despite being last seen on November 18, it took police until December 23 to discover his address had been cleared out, and until January 3 to notify the PPS.
On Radio Ulster last Thursday, Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray was asked if he believes McLaughlin is on the island of Ireland.
He said he was reluctant to “give information which may allow a suspect to begin to pinpoint what the police believe, what their lines of enquiry are, or focus on where we’re looking”.