Dissident who avoided jail after judge was told he ‘matured’ still vocally backs hardcore republicans

The News Letter has discovered that a dissident republican who escaped jail for his part in a bomb plot has spent the years since voicing support for paramilitaries – despite the court being told that he had changed his attitudes.

Monday, 19th October 2020, 10:55 am
Image from Conal Corbett's Facebook showing an Irish tricolour, a submachine gun, and a quote from dead INLA paramilitary Thomas 'Ta' Power

Conal Corbett used his Facebook account to publish odes to IRA men, to voice solidarity with imprisoned dissidents, to post pictures of gunmen in balaclavas, and to “like” groups with links to terror like Republican Sinn Fein, Saoradh, and the IRSP.

DUP MP Gavin Robinson, a qualified barrister, said it looks like Corbett “learned nothing” from his past offending – and it should spur people on to demand stronger sentences in Northern Ireland.

In August 2016 Corbett was given an 18-month jail sentence, suspended for two years. It stemmed from a remote-controlled device which had been planted in a billboard at the Ardoyne shops (a tense interface in north Belfast).

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Attempts to detonate it were unsuccessful, but the court heard police officers had been its intended victims.

Although the court did not find Corbett had planted the bomb himself, police traced his involvement via mobile phone activity after the plotters ‘called in’ the location of the unexploded device.

Corbett was identified through his purchase of telephone top-up vouchers.

When police searched his house they found documents about ammunition and rifle components, assembly instructions for an AK47, a balaclava, a handkerchief which had been signed by prisoners from the dissident wing in Maghaberry, and a crossbow.

He was interviewed 12 times and did not respond to any question.

He was 18 at the time of the bomb attempt.

He was convicted of two counts of possessing items for terrorist-related offences; collecting or making records of information for terrorism; and possessing documents useful for terrorism.

His defence barrister said the offences had happened at a time when there was an “element of naïvety” about Corbett.

He was a “teenager with misguided romantic notions” the barrister said.

However, he added that Corbett had since developed “a degree of maturity and insight”, and that his offending had been a “stark wake-up call” for him.

It now emerges that within several months of his sentencing, Corbett was posting hard-line republican materials online (full details further below).

DUP MP SPEAKS OUT:

Gavin Robinson, who has spoken out a number of times about what he believes is lenient treatment of paramilitaries, said there is “a need to get real” on sentencing.

“I think it’s fair to say that romantic naivete still brings with it the potential for serious and sustained harm. This individual has shown his capacity to engage with, and has plead guilty to, terrorist offences,” he said.

Mr Robinson said Corbett had “shown his capacity to engage with, and has plead guilty to, terrorist offences” and that despite the passage of time his Facebook posts suggest “he has learned nothing and continues to live within a warped, fantasist regime which could continue to have serious consequences”.

“If anything, this only highlights the danger we have with our lenient sentencing regime and the need for a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system when dealing with such serious terrorist offences,” he added.

“We need to see a level of consistency of approach between the English courts and NI courts. The English courts have routinely shown themselves to respond appropriately with sentences that are of deterrent value in cases like this.

“Yet in NI it seems ok to give people the benefit of the doubt and a light slap on the wrist.”

A spokeswoman for the judiciary said “when sentencing, judges must take account of the evidence that is in front of them at that time.; this will include evidence from the prosecution and defence as well as the pre-sentence report prepared by a probation officer”.

They added that “if you are aware of any information that was not before the judge and which you consider may amount to an allegation that a criminal offence was committed... you should contact the PSNI”.

The Northern Ireland Office and PPS also referred the News Letter to the PSNI.

It is understood that the PPS had been unable to challenge Corbett’s punishment as “unduly lenient” under the terms of sentencing law.

And when details of this story were put to the PSNI, it said: “Sentencing is a matter for the courts. It would be inappropriate to comment on named individuals.”

THE LIST OF FACEBOOK POSTS FROM CORBETT:

• June 21, 2017, he posted an image saying “Solidarity with Christine” (referring to Christine Connor, who is now serving a jail term for trying to blow up police in north Belfast). The same day he also posted a picture of balaclava-clad men carrying a tricolour-draped coffin.

• June 25, 2017, he posted an image of a Kalashnikov with the words: “The workers must be armed and organised.”

• September 29, 2017, the day the death of Maghaberry’s governor Steve Davis was announced, he posted online that Maghaberry under him was a “concentration camp” which metes out “brutality” to prisoners in the republican wings.

• November 3, 2017, he posted a picture of IRA terrorist Pete Ryan (shot in 1991 while en route to kill a part-time UDR volunteer).

The same day he posted an image reading Free Tony Taylor (a PIRA bomber who had more recently become involved in dissident activities).

• January 14, 2018, posted a picture of Bobby Sands.

• April 17, 2018, posted pictures of men with balaclavas walking round Ardoyne with assault rifles.

The same day he posted lyrics to The Ballad of Billy Reid (a song which speaks of how that IRA man died a hero while trying to ‘cut those Brits down’ with a machine-gun).

• April 19, 2018, recirculated a post from a dissident group purporting to show UK intelligence agents at work.

• April 28, 2018, circulated a post reading: “Some men fought for silver and some men fight for gold, but the IRA are fighting for the land de Valera sold.”

• May 2, 2018, an image of Bobby Sands and INLA man Ta Power with a Kalashnikov and a tricolour, and a poem which concludes: “Arise, rebel, and strike and fight and raise your battle cry to heaven, Teach your children the only law and word that fat men fear: The power of an AK-47.”

• May 5, 2018, posted a Republican Network for Unity tribute to Bobby Sands.

• May 12, 2018, posted a tribute to hunger striker Francis Hughes.

Those were all posted within the two-year period that his sentence was suspended for.

• His most recent post – which drew the News Letter’s attention – was on September 14 this year, and was an image from Republican Sinn Fein (linked to the CIRA) saying: “Reject the sectarian RUC/PSNI.”

Corbett is now aged 25.

Among his Facebook “likes” are “Human rights denied: Support Liam Campbell” (a campaign calling for the man found liable for the Omagh bomb to be freed), Saoradh Belfast, various chapters of Republican Sinn Fein, the 32 Country Sovereignty Movement, and the IRSP (the political wing of the INLA).

The News Letter sent Corbett messages via Facebook, making him aware of the pending article and asking him some questions, including “what - if anything - do you feel has changed in your outlook since you were involved in the bomb plot?”

No answer was received at time of writing.

With hate crime again in the news this week – (PSNI probe into ‘f**k the Pope’ Tesco tannoy outburst ‘a waste of police time’) – here is some of the News Letter’s coverage of a current plan to extend the reach of such laws.

The News Letter has looked into this process in far more detail than any other outlet:

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