'˜Freedom of Information law is why terror case details are hidden'

A law designed to open up public records has been cited as the reason why details about a veteran paramilitary's prior conviction cannot be revealed.

Saturday, 11th February 2017, 3:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st March 2017, 9:23 am
Tony Taylor in 2007

It could be 2019 by the time details of an old court case against Tony Taylor are made available by the government – despite the fact they would all have been revealed openly when the case was heard.

Taylor is currently in jail, having been returned there by the Secretary of State in 2016 after his licence was revoked by the Secretary of State.

In 2014 he was given a jail term for having a semi-automatic rifle, but was freed again shortly afterwards due to time spent on remand.

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However, as widely reported in the press, that was not his first conviction.

Before the first IRA ceasefire Taylor was convicted in relation to what is often described as a “premature explosion” in Londonderry.

He was given an 18 year sentence some time in the mid-90s, but was freed in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement (and his licence term for this crime has since expired).

However, few details about this significant crime are ever reported.

The most substantial account online seems to be in the Irish News, which dates the blast as January 27, 1994.

“The force of the explosion knocked down a wall and in a follow-up operation police recovered a mark 16 mortar which appeared to be in the process of being set up to be fired,” it says.

With a campaign growing for Taylor’s release, drawing support from SDLP members and Catholic priest Father Paddy O’Kane, The News Letter has sought to find out further details about this crime.

The paper asked the Courts Service and then the Department for Communities (which runs the Province’s records archive) for details of the exact offence, any closing remarks from the judge, and more.

After weeks of pursuing the issue, the department did not provide any information and said instead: “This file is exempt under section 32 of the Freedom of Information Act... The exemption is absolute.”

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has largely opened up state records to public view, but an amendment introduced in 2005 “exempts information contained in certain litigation documents and court, tribunal and inquiry records and will apply regardless of the content of the information”.

The veil of secrecy around the details the News Letter is seeking will not be lifted until some time on December 31 next year, it said.

Such secrecy stands in bizarre contrast with the fact that details, including summaries of judgements, are made available for much more recent cases.