DoJ review into sentencing makes no mention of terror

Justice minister Claire Sugden at Magilligan Prison, January 2017
Justice minister Claire Sugden at Magilligan Prison, January 2017

A review into the kinds of sentences which are handed to Northern Irish offenders has barely progressed in the seven months since it was announced – and appears to exclude consideration of terrorist crimes.

The review was announced on June 9 last year by Claire Sugden, only a few weeks after the independent East Londonderry MLA took up the post of justice minister.

January 23, 2017:

Forensic experts on the scene at a petrol station on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast where an on-duty PSNI officer was shot in the arm during a gun attack

January 23, 2017: Forensic experts on the scene at a petrol station on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast where an on-duty PSNI officer was shot in the arm during a gun attack

In the wake of an News Letter examination during the last week of a number of lenient sentences handed out to dissident paramilitary offenders in recent months, the paper asked her department what had happened to the review – which attracted barely any notice at the time it was announced.

It said that it remains in the “preliminary stage” but revealed little else, such as when it is likely to be finished.

Some information about it was announced on the department’s website last summer.

But the list showing the of types of crime it is considering does not mention terrorism.

When asked if terrorist offences are in fact among the kind being reviewed, the Department of Justice (DoJ) simply referred the News Letter back to that original list which said nothing about them.

According to that list, the review will look into crimes against “older and vulnerable people”; “offences which may result in death, including causing death by dangerous driving”; attacks on frontline public workers “with a focus on health service staff”; “hate crimes”; tariffs regarding mandatory life sentences for murder; and appeals against lenient sentences.

The issue of paramilitary violence was thrust into the public eye once again last Sunday, when the latest dissident republican attack in north Belfast left a police officer with gunshot wounds.

Afterwards, one serving police officer contacted the News Letter to say the weak court response to the dissident campaign was hurting police morale.

The UUP MLA Doug Beattie said the DoJ needs to ensure “sentencing in relation to terrorist offences are reviewed in order to reflect the seriousness with which the Assembly and society view cases involving terrorism and/or murder”.

Meanwhile, the TUV leader Jim Allister (who qualified as a barrister in 1976 and practiced – mainly in defence – until 2004) said without a focus on terrorism, the review is a “pointless exercise”.

He said: “It is within the terrorism field that there is most concern about the inadequacy of sentencing.

“So has the justice minister set up a review which excludes the most pertinent subject matter... why would she exclude that?

“That’s the area she needs to get the answers on.”

He added: “How many years is this going to take? It seems there’s a very complacent attitude on this if, seven months later, they still haven’t got round to actually doing anything about it.”

On Tuesday an examination was published by the News Letter of three terrorist cases, all of which have seen sentences handed down since last August.

It showed that when confronted with crimes which can bring tariffs of many years in jail, judges allowed two of the three defendants go free with suspended sentences.

One suspended sentence recipient had been caught with a rifle which a judge ruled was for paramilitary purposes, the other was part of a conspiracy surrounding a remote-controlled bomb which had been planted in north Belfast with the apparent intention of blowing up police officers.

The third man was ordered to serve just two-and-a-half years behind bars, despite being caught with two different guns one year after another (one of which had been used to riddle a house with bullets the night before it was found).

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein what they thought of the fact that no mention had been made of terrorism in the DoJ’s review, and that it still remains only in its early stages.

It was also put to both parties that they had, presumably, agreed the terms of reference for the sentencing review.

Neither party responded.