Stormont yesterday formally criticised bail failures by police and courts in Northern Ireland in reaction to controversy over a dissident accused absconding.
The Assembly condemned the saga in a motion proposed by the Ulster Unionist Party, which expressed concern about the granting of bail in the case of Damien Joseph McLaughlin, 40, who has since gone missing.
In an extraordinary episode, McLaughlin, of Kilmascarry Road in Dungannon, who is charged in connection with the 2012 murder of the prison officer David Black, cannot be found ahead of his trial next month.
He had had his bail terms repeatedly watered down by judges, against the wishes of police and prosecutors.
McLaughlin went missing some time in November, and this was not noticed by police until late December, despite the fact that he was supposed to be signing on with the PSNI five days a week.
There was also controversy last year when the man accused of murdering Adrian Ismay, Christopher Robinson, 46, of Aspen Park Dunmurry, was repeatedly granted bail despite the seriousness of the charge and despite repeatedly breaching his bail terms.
The motion yesterday, which was moved by UUP MLA Doug Beattie, was opposed by nationalists but passed by 51 votes to 33 after 90 minutes of debate.
It was one of the final pieces of Stormont business before the election on March 2.
The motion said that Assembly noted “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”.
It also expressed concern at the granting of bail in the case, the low level of sureties required and the length of time taken by the PSNI to realise McLaughlin had absconded.
It continued that the Assembly “believes that terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed; calls on the Minister of Justice [Claire Sugden] to ensure that steps are taken to see that the suspect is returned to custody”.
The motion also called on Ms Sugden “to take urgent steps to review bail policy in Northern Ireland, with particular regard to cases involving murder and terrorism”.
Mr Beattie said that Northern Ireland had “been scourged by terrorism for far too long” but that it had diminished since 1998.
However, he said, ongoing paramilitary activity terrorises “all our communities, and west Belfast has suffered far more than most”.
He added: “Therefore, we must have robust structures for dealing with those linked to terrorism or, indeed, those charged with terrorist offences, including strict bail conditions or stopping bail if we believe somebody is involved in terrorism.”
Mr Beattie outlined the failures in the Black suspect case and then asked MLAs: “Can you imagine how the Black family feels at this moment in time? Completely let down by the justice system.”
He said that bail must be an exception in cases of murder or terrorist offences.
Keith Buchanan, a DUP MLA, was one of a number of members of his party to speak in favour of the motion.
“I worked with David many times in the voluntary sector back in the late 1990s. He was a true gentleman, father and public servant.”
Mr Buchanan said there were concerns among many in the community “about the criminal justice system, in particular the case of the man accused of involvement in the murder of David Black”.
He noted that McLaughlin “had his bail conditions were relaxed to allow him to reside in a luxury hotel from 7 August until Tuesday 9 August” and during that time was photographed “with a convicted republican terrorist at a city centre parade”.
Trevor Lunn, the Alliance MLA, said that he too supported the motion.
But he added: “I am not going to defend Mr McLaughlin in any way, but I note that his original bail was set in May 2014.
“I cannot help thinking that, if he had been remanded in custody, we would be having a different debate. I would query keeping someone in custody pending trial for almost three years.”
Jim Allister, TUV MLA and a QC, said “There patently is a systemic problem in the administration of bail, and I think that there are proper criticisms to be made arising from the case that most recently evidenced that problem, the McLaughlin case.”
He said that the source of the problem was the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Under article 5, the European convention creates a presumption in favour of bail.”
But he added: “I have a criticism of our judges. Judges in Northern Ireland are more timid and more generous in their attitude to the European Convention and, therefore, more generous in their granting of bail, I perceive, when contrasted with those elsewhere in the United Kingdom.”
Ms Sugden said she welcomed the motion and debate.
She said: “Generally, I understand, appreciate and, certainly, sympathise with the ethos of the debate, but there are a number of aspects that make it difficult for me to support it,” she said.
Ms Sugden thanked police officers, prison officers and everyone in the justice system for their service.
She said she had written to the Lord Chief Justice, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chief Constable about the McLaughlin episode.
She added: “There will, I am sure, be lessons to be learned.”
In other comments, Ms Sugden said: “I am quite happy to take up [Jim Allister’s] suggestion of doing a comparative model to see whether there are differences between what is happening in Northern Ireland and what is happening in GB.”
The motion was then put to MLAs and was passed after a division by a margin of 51 votes to 33, with Ms Sugden abstaining.
Nationalist and some other MLAs opposed the motion.
Declan Kearney of Sinn Fein said that his party was “not opposed to a review of bail policy, but we are opposed on human rights grounds to the proposed blanket ban that emerges from the motion for anyone charged with scheduled offences or the offence of murder”.
Mr Kearney said: “What must be paramount in all our minds and in the House is that for all citizens there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.”
He added: “The difficulty is that many prisoners have experienced inordinate and unacceptable delays while on remand in custody awaiting trial.”
Mr Kearney said that “the logic of the UUP position is that bail should not have been granted to the British army veteran charged in connection with the fatal shooting of John Pat Cunningham in Benburb in 1974.
“That is the difficulty when we begin to take an arbitrary or piecemeal approach to these issues”.
Alex Attwood, SDLP, said: “Like other Members in the Chamber, I attended the home of the Black family and the funeral of that prison officer.”
Mr Attwood added: “I am sure that the judiciary can hear this debate, and I am sure that they have heard the criticism.
“I have no doubt that the Lord Chief Justice will act on legitimate public concern, but that is what we should allow to happen: a response to legitimate public concern. However, we should not invert the rule of law and bail procedure”.
Other opponents included Eamonn McCann who said that calling for the release of people from custody did not amount to “standing side by side with extremists”.
Mr McCann said that “the remarks that I make today in standing up for civil liberties and bail conditions do not associate me with armed struggle or anything else, but with the basic principles of justice”.