A warning from a senior legal figure that some paramilitary suspects who are out on bail pose a “threat” to Northern Ireland’s security has been dubbed “very troubling” by a barrister-turned-politician.
Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, was reacting to the findings in a report carried out by Brian Barker QC – a retired former senior judge at the Old Bailey in London – into the policing and terrorism situation in the Province.
His report spanned six months up to last December, and a summary of it was delivered to Parliament by Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire last week (the government is not releasing the contents of the report directly for security reasons).
Among Mr Barker’s summarised findings is this line: “The threat from those released from custodial sentences and those given bail continue to present a challenge.”
The News Letter has repeatedly aired concerns about both lenient sentencing for criminals who are convicted of paramilitary-linked crime, and about the availability of bail while they are accused of such offences.
As well as describing Mr Barker’s above finding as “very troubling”, Mr Allister said: “One of the primary tests before anyone is released on bail is that there is no threat of reoffending.
“Yet, here we have the reviewing judge expressing alarm at the continuing terrorist threat from those released on bail.”
He added that it was “disappointing” that, having made such a finding, Mr Barker did not proceed to conduct a wider investigation into bail policy in Northern Ireland – something he said is “urgently required”.
The News Letter has asked the Department of Justice about an ongoing review of bail in the Province repeatedly, but it has offered little clarity on when – if ever – it may conclude (READ MORE HERE).
Mr Allister concluded: “Our judiciary should seriously reflect on this report, particularly when it suggests that the threat posed by those released on bail poses ‘a challenge’.
“We cannot ignore this issue until the point when that ‘challenge’ leads to a tragedy.
“Likewise, the secretary of state needs to be mindful of Judge Barker’s finding on the threat posed by those released from sentences when he comes to exercising his powers to recall to prison those on licence.”
The News Letter asked the Lord Chief Justice’s office, responsible for the Province’s judiciary, whether judges will consider Mr Barker’s findings when it comes to informing their decision-making about bail and sentencing.
It did not answer directly, but responded with a statement it has issued many times before on the subject of bail.
It said: “Since the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1988, the judiciary are obliged to release applicants on bail unless certain circumstances are established in court.
“There is a presumption in favour of the granting of bail.
“Invariably, however, a judge must consider whether or not the prosecution have established a recognised risk, such as the defendant being likely to reoffend or interfere with witnesses or leave the jurisdiction.
“If such a risk is identified then the court has another step to consider. Again, this is a legal requirement.
“The court must decide if a condition or conditions might be attached to the bail to prevent the risks identified by the prosecution arising.
“Unless there is a risk, and no conditions may be applied to address the risk, then the judge must release the defendant.”
Since the public cannot see the exact contents of Mr Barker’s report, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) had been asked if it could shed more light on his remarks about bail and sentencing posing a “challenge”.
It responded: “This is a report of an independent reviewer and it would, therefore, be inappropriate for the NIO to seek to interpret his views” – even though, by Mr Brokenshire summarising them before Parliament, this is essentially what it had already done.