Ben Lowry: No other country in the West would treat terror charges as lightly as Northern Ireland does

David Black was murdered on his way to work in November 2012
David Black was murdered on his way to work in November 2012

Last May, some astonishing court decisions were made in which the man accused of murdering the prison officer Adrian Ismay was repeatedly granted bail.

Despite the seriousness of the charge, Christopher Robinson, 46, of Aspen Park, Dunmurry, was granted bail at the High Court. He was later granted it again despite immediate breaches of terms on two consecutive nights.

Prison Officer Adrian Ismay who died 11 days after he sustained injuries in an under car booby trap attack

Prison Officer Adrian Ismay who died 11 days after he sustained injuries in an under car booby trap attack

I wrote two long articles about the matter.

As research for the pieces, I spoke to lawyers, to intelligence operatives, to politicians, to people in the security forces on both sides of the Irish Sea about what normally happened in different parts of the UK.

The people that I spoke to concluded that a release on bail on a serious terrorist charge in Great Britain would be unthinkable in the first instance, let alone after breaches of the conditions.

The Robinson case, I wrote, raised questions “of the utmost urgency” about bail policy in Northern Ireland at any time, let alone amid a grave terrorist threat.

It was to be hoped, I added, that the Department of Justice at Stormont, or the Northern Ireland Office (in the case of terrorist legislation that is not devolved) were using their expertise and resources to investigate and establish if bail policy in NI was appropriate for cases involving serious charges.

But there has been seemingly no sense of urgency about bail policy in the Province at all since then.

In the Robinson case alone, further breaches of bail went without sanction until his freedom was finally revoked in October.

If there has been any government scrutiny of bail policy in recent months, it has had no publicity.

Now that Claire Sugden MLA, the justice minister, is beginning to end her silence on the RHI scandal, perhaps she would also speak out about this crucial issue.

The matter is now more urgent than it was.

Yesterday it emerged that Damien Joseph McLaughlin, 40, from Kilmascally Road in Dungannon, has gone missing weeks before he faces trial for aiding and abetting the murder of the prison officer David Black by dissident republicans who shot Mr Black on the M1 in 2012.

He had been on remand, but was granted bail in 2014.

Belfast Crown Court heard yesterday that McLaughlin has not been seen by police since November and seems to no longer be at his Belfast bail address.

When the accused was first granted bail he was required to live at an address in Ardboe, to surrender his passport, to sign with police daily and he was tagged and made subject to a curfew.

Later these terms were eased and his tag was removed and the frequency with which he had to sign with police cut to five days a week. The address was changed from Ardboe to one in west Belfast.

In August bail was amended so McLaughlin could enjoy a luxury break at Manor House Hotel, Fermanagh,

The court heard yesterday that he has not been seen since November when he failed to sign with police. The Belfast address seemed to have been cleared out by December 23.

It is, you will note, now January 7.

It has been mostly holiday time since the December 23 discovery but courts have emergency provisions. Policing never stops.

So to recap, the charges were originally deemed so serious that they merited the defendant being held in custody, but he was then freed on condition that he sign with police daily.

Now he has not been seen for seven weeks but his bail was only revoked yesterday.

Let us bounce over to the Christopher Robinson saga, and recap chronologically on the extraordinary decisions in that case too:

• March 4 Bomb attack on Adrian Ismay’s van, from which he later dies

• May 4 Christopher Robinson is charged and bailed by Mr Justice Colton. Police and prosecutors had opposed it.

• May 5 After not answering the door at 2.25am when Robinson is subject to curfew police call again at 6am and arrest him. He is brought before a court that day and granted bail again, this time by a district judge. Once again, PPS and PSNI oppose.

That very night the security firm reports an issue with his tag.

• May 6 Brought before a court a further time, a third judge overrules PPS and PSNI opposition to bail. The court is told his tag came loose after a fall. Robinson is freed a third time. His lawyer cites court decisions against PSNI opposition to bail and says his client believes he is being harassed by police due to the repeated arrests.

• Aug 22 He is returned to custody for failing to sign with PSNI by a stated time.

• Aug 23 The city’s Magistrates’ Court was told the failure was due to him having been asleep after having had difficulty getting a taxi from the West Belfast Festival. Releasing him again, a fourth judge cautioned: “You might not get as easy a ride again.”

• Early October a prohibition was imposed on him putting messages on social media.

• October 16, he begins posting again.

• October 27 bail is finally revoked over Facebook comments about a policeman’s photo.

There have been other bail controversies in separate dissident terror charge cases.

In August, the News Letter revealed that there was nothing to stop the republican Dee Fennell from attending republican commemorations in Donegal when his bail was altered so that he could go on holiday in the county while he awaits trial for alleged terror offences.

Anyone who is charged with an offence is of course innocent until proven otherwise, a cornerstone of our justice system. But even so bail policy for serious charges is always an important issue.

When I asked the courts last May about the seemingly generous policy in serious terror cases, they replied: “Since the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law through the Human Rights Act, the judiciary are obliged to release applicants on bail unless certain circumstances are established in court. There is a presumption of innocence and therefore in favour granting of bail.”

When, after further bail breaches being met with further failures to revoke bail over the summer, I again asked the courts, and they repeated that line.

So let me repeat something that I wrote in the summer.

Is Theresa May, I asked, being kept abreast of this personally?

She has long been concerned about how the ECHR constrains the fight against terror (the same ECHR, by the way, that puts a legal obligation to hold inquests into victims of state killing during the Troubles, including some terrorists. Meanwhile past terrorists escape scrutiny).

And to repeat something else I wrote: Do not forget that when dissidents next carry out an atrocity, there will be comprehensive scrutiny of how the security services responded to the risks before the attack.

But will there be scrutiny of bail policy, and how the courts apply it?

Meanwhile, there has also been controversy about sentencing of people who have been convicted of serious dissident terrorist offences.

Last year Conal Corbett, 20, of Victoria Parade in Belfast, avoided jail for offences linked to a bomb plot which could have killed police.

It also emerged last year that three dissident terrorists are already out of prison less than two years after they had been jailed for a plot to murder police and a judge that was foiled by painstaking security force work.

When we see the uproar at the slightest security failings in France, Belgium and Germany and other countries when their public is put at risk from terrorism, we can reasonably speculate one thing – that there is barely a country in the western world today that would treat the terrorist threat as lightly as Northern Ireland does.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Morning View: Courts must urgently explain lenient bail policy for terror cases

Ben Lowry in August: Memo to Theresa May – Look how the Human Rights Act is applied in NI

Ben Lowry in May: Bailing of Ismay murder suspect raises wider questions about bail policy in NI

PPS and PSNI explain how they opposed bail each time Adrian Ismay murder accused appeared before courts