A serving policeman operating in the volatile district of north Belfast has said the paltry sentences and easy bail handed out in dissident paramilitary cases are damaging morale in the PSNI.
He contacted the News Letter after one of his colleagues narrowly escaped death in the area on Sunday night after the latest dissident bid to murder an officer.
He lacks “any confidence” in the courts to hand out tough sentences to those involved in bids to kill officers, and said the dissident campaign is “definitely not” being treated as seriouly as it should.
The News Letter is not revealing his identity.
On the subject of the police officer who was shot on Sunday, he said: “We’re expecting this to happen. This is how we work every day.
“Every time we’re standing at a scene or going to something, you’re wondering: is this going to be a set-up? Is one of us going to be attacked?
“That’s how we think. It’s how we have to think.
“We’re expecting something to happen and when it does happen it’s obviously devastating for his colleagues.”
When it comes to how courts deal with people convicted, or suspected, of involvement in violent dissident activity, he said issues of “bail and sentencing just need addressed urgently”.
He pointed to a case in Scotland in 2015, when a string of people were handed lengthy jail terms for planning to kill prominent loyalist thug Johnny Adair.
In that case, the ringleader of the plot, Anton Duffy, 39, was jailed for 17 years, with another three to be spent on licence.
“In Northern Ireland, if you’re a police officer, I do not expect [those who try and kill us] to get anything like that,” the PSNI man said.
“I don’t have any confidence in it being a large sentence.
“The morale in the police is so bad as it is. But it’s because of this.
“You don’t feel you have any protection whatsoever from the courts, because there’s no deterrent.”
The officer then specifically mentioned the case of Conal Corbett.
On August 15 last year, Corbett had been set free with a suspended sentence after he pleaded guilty to charges arising from the planting of a sizable radio-controlled bomb on a public street in north Belfast in May 2015, which was apparently intended to kill police.
“We couldn’t believe it – could not believe it,” the officer said of the sentence.
“We were talking about it that morning: ‘He’s going down.’ There wasn’t one person in work that didn’t think he’d be going to jail.”
“It’s not even on par with the mainland,” he said, wondering what would have happened if an ISIS supporter were implcated in a similar terror plot in England.
“If Conal Corbett popped up in London tomorrow and had the same evidence against him, would he get a suspended sentence? It just never, ever would happen.”
In Monday’s edition, the News Letter carried out a detailed examination of exactly which laws Corbett had broken, and what the maximum possible sentence could have been.
The four charges admitted by Corbett under the Terrorism Act 2000 (including having a phone linked to the bomb conspiracy) theoretically carry maximum sentences which, if combined, would amount to 25 years of jail time.
In reality, he got an 18 month sentence, suspended for two years.
“These people are determined to kill us – there is no doubt about it,” said the officer.
“But people just don’t seem to appreciate that.”
Over the past three weeks, the News Letter has kept up a relentless focus on how the whole justice system is treating dissident suspects and convicts, ever since news emerged that Damien McLaughlin had vanished whilst out on bail.
Arrested in late 2012, he was charged with aiding and abetting the murder of David Black (among other things).
He denies the charges.
Despite the severity of his charges, he was bailed in May 2014, and conditions such as a requirement to wear a tag were gradually relaxed.
He was supposed to sign for bail with police five times a week, but vanished in mid-November – with the PSNI failing to act to revoke his bail until after the Christmas / New Year holidays in January.
When it comes to courts granting bail for terror suspects, the officer said: “Judges are tied – there has to be a presumption of innocence. But at the same time, where there’s a suspicion somebody has possibly tried to murder [members of the security forces], there’s nothing more extreme than that, and they should not be let onto the streets.”