Bail scandal: DoJ silent over what it is doing – if anything

Claire Sugden
Claire Sugden

The Department of Justice (DoJ) has failed to say what – if anything – it is doing to review Northern Irish courts’ attitude towards bail for alleged paramilitiaries.

The department, headed by independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden, was tasked during the summer with conducting a review into the granting of a bail “in respect of serious offences”.

But whilst the Public Prosecution Service has told the News Letterthe department is “currently carrying out” this review, no-one from the DoJ itself has been able to provide any answers about it.

The issue of bail for terror suspects was thrown into the public spotlight again last week when it emerged in court that Damien Joseph McLaughlin cannot be located.

He is due to stand trial on February 20 on charges – which he denies – including aiding and abetting the murder of David Black. See here for details.

The News Letter asked on Monday whether the DoJ is investigating bail policy for people facing terror charges, whether the minister accepts the view that Northern Irish courts apply bail policy bail differently to those in Great Britain, and whether she had anything to say on McLaughlin’s disappearance.

A handful of further, more specific questions then followed on Tuesday – including whether any such investigation into bail matters will be disrupted by the current turmoil in the Executive.

No answers have been received.

Roy Beggs, UUP member of Stormont’s justice committee, said on the subject of McLaughlin’s disappearance that “the public deserves an explanation from the police and the justice minister”, and that he would “take the opportunity that remains in the life of this Executive to try and get an answer from the minister”.

He added it was “disappointing” the minister has not shed light on when any bail review might be prepared.

The office of the Lord Chief Justice, who heads up the Province’s judiciary, this week told the News Letter it does “not wish to make any comment on the specifics of this particular case [the McLaughlin case]”.

And in relation to the more general perception that terror suspects are treated leniently in terms of bail, it referred the News Letter to the Executive’s action plan on “tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime”, published in July 2016.

This had stated that the DoJ, “working with the judiciary and with counterparts in the UK and Irish Governments, should review the position regarding bail in respect of serious offences to determine the facts about its availability and, if required, bring forward measures to improve the situation”.

It would work to “initially to establish facts about bail decisions”, and if its findings “demonstrate any gaps in the law, phase two of this work will consider whether further measures are needed”.

McLaughlin (40 and from Kilmascally Road, Dungannon) had been out on bail since May 2014.

He has not been seen since November 18, despite the fact he had to sign for bail at a police station five times a week.

When police searched his Belfast bail address on December 23, exactly five weeks later, they found milk which was a month out of date.

Nonetheless, it was not until last Friday – seven weeks after he was last seen – that the case was brought before a judge and his bail was revoked.

The Police Ombudsman is now considering an investigation into the PSNI’s handling of the matter.