Bail policy concerns after dissident murder bid on Belfast officer

Chief Constable George Hamilton addresses the media at Tennent Street PSNI station
Chief Constable George Hamilton addresses the media at Tennent Street PSNI station

Issues around court bail for dissident republican suspects is one area of concern as police investigate the latest murder attempt on an officer, the chief constable has said.

Addressing the media following Sunday’s gun attack in north Belfast – in which a community officer suffered gunshot wounds to his arm – George Hamilton said the criminal justice system needed a “linked up” approach.

Forensic experts examine the scene of Sundays gun attack on a police officer at a garage forecourt on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast

Forensic experts examine the scene of Sundays gun attack on a police officer at a garage forecourt on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast

The injured officer was targeted as he called at the Maxol garage on the Crumlin Road close to the junction with Tennent Street. He is understood to be a probationer constable in his early 20s.

There have been a number of serious incidents linked to dissident republicans in recent months, with many commentators expressing concern that bail is often granted despite police objections.

Commenting on the support his officers are receiving from the courts in terms of sentencing and bail policy for dissident republicans, Mr Hamilton said: “Our job is to gather the evidence, to present that evidence to the prosecutor for the prosecutor to take that through the courts and for the courts to decide on things like bail and sentencing and so on.

“Sometimes it is a concern to us, around bail conditions. We have a responsibility in imposing bail conditions once they are set by the court, we do all of that to the best of our ability, but I think this is where the criminal justice system needs to be linked up – needs to be working together – and making it as difficult as possible, unashamedly, for people who did what they did last night to continue to do that.”

Mr Hamilton added: “We want to gather the evidence and to present that to the courts so that they can be locked up and justice can be done and be seen to be done.”

Speaking on Monday afternoon during an Assembly debate on the shooting, Edwin Poots of the DUP said he did not want his grandchildren to grow up in such a violent environment and added: “I want the people who carry out the likes of the shooting last night to be marginalised, sidelined and incarcerated and to serve very long sentences for what they do, not given the opportunity to go out to carry out more of this in the name of Ireland or of any other cause.”

Mr Poots added: “This has not been a success for those who set out last night. Success for them means the same outcome as happened with Constable Carroll, David Black and Adrian Ismay and, indeed, civilians who have been targeted by the same individuals.”

His party colleague North Belfast MLA William Humprhey said it was vital that those responsible are “brought to justice and removed from society”.

Mr Humphrey said: “We must all stand together against violence, intimidation and threats. I am concerned that this sort of violence follows a vacuum that has been created in Northern Ireland and that evil people might fill it.”

During the same debate, TUV leader Jim Allister said he hoped those responsible would be apprehended, and added: “My primary thoughts are with the officer who was subjected to this vile attack last night. We wish him well and a full recovery.

“It is a reminder to us of how the police and security services stand between us and those with murder in their hearts.

“It is a quite shocking situation, but let it be said that it is no more shocking, no more vile and no more unjustified than the terrorists of the IRA or anyone else who, for years, inflicted such horror; those who, with murder in their hearts, went out and did murder.”

Mr Allister added: “I hope someone – hopefully, more than one person – is made amenable for this crime. I trust that, when they are arrested, they will not be easily, as was the person charged with the attempted murder of [prison officer] David Black, admitted to bail, and that their bail terms will not be made so easy if they are admitted to bail, and they should not be in the first place.”

Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein also told Assembly members that the attack could not be justified, and said: “These people know that they should get off the backs of the local community and the overall society to which we belong”.

Commenting on how leniently a number of suspected dissident republicans have been dealt with by the courts, Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie said: “It is high time we looked at how we approach the issue of bail in terrorist cases. There needs to be a presumption in favour of protecting the public and those who are the targets of terror gangs – the police, prison officers and soldiers.

“People charged with terrorist offences are clearly suspected of posing a threat to at least some section of our society. Safety considerations should be paramount in such cases and bail should only be granted in very exceptional circumstances.”

Alliance justice spokesperson Trevor Lunn said: “There is certainly a discussion to be had around the granting of bail, particularly given recent concerns relating to a specific case. We have concerns in many cases, relatively lenient sentences are being given for serious crimes. We think this issue should be addressed by way of the lord chief justice’s sentencing guidelines.”

Mr Lunn added: “When bail conditions are imposed by the court, it is the responsibility of police to ensure they are strictly enforced.”

• An Assembly motion calling for a review of court bail policy in cases of terrorism and murder is due to be debated at Stormont on Tuesday.

It has been proposed by the UUP following widespread concern that a man suspected of involvement in the murder of prison officer David Black in 2012 absconded while on bail.

Earlier this month it emerged that Damian McLaughlin from Dungannon had not been seen for seven weeks following the relaxation of his bail conditions.

The motion – in the name of MLAs Doug Beattie, Roy Beggs and Sandra Overend – states: “That this Assembly notes the recent failures in the criminal justice system to ensure that a man suspected of involvement in the murder of prison officer David Black abided by bail conditions; expresses concern at the granting of bail in this case, the low level of sureties required and the length of time taken by the PSNI to realise this individual had absconded; believes that terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed; calls on the Justice minister to ensure that steps are taken to see that the suspect is returned to custody; and further calls on the justice minister to take urgent steps to review bail policy in Northern Ireland, with particular regard to cases involving murder and terrorism.”