Dissident sentences ‘would have been laughed at during Troubles’

Jim Allister said there has been an 'observable reduction' in the level of sentencing handed out by the courts
Jim Allister said there has been an 'observable reduction' in the level of sentencing handed out by the courts

A barrister-turned-politician who defended clients during the Troubles has said some of the recent dissident sentences which the News Letter has highlighted would have been “laughed out of court” in decades gone past.

Jim Allister QC said the sentences being meted out nowadays are “failing to provide [a] deterrent” to those who may be getting involved in the ongoing republican paramilitary campaign.

He was reacting to a trio of recent terrorism-related cases which the News Letter has focused on as a means of examining how seriously judges are treating the dissident threat.

One involved Conal Corbett (given a suspended jail term for his role in a major bomb bid), another Gerard Flannigan (of Colin View Street, west Belfast) who was ordered to serve just two-and-a-half years in jail after being convicted of possessing two separate guns in incidents one year apart, and Brian Gerald Holmes (of Bingnian Drive, west Belfast), who walked free with a suspended sentence for rifle possession.

The News Letter has examined their precise offences here, and what they could – in theory – have been sentenced to, with the DUP’s Nelson McCausland stating that there is no real deterrent being displayed for would-be dissident criminals.

Mr Allister (TUV MLA for North Antrim) became a barrister in 1976 and practised until spring 2004 (when he became an MEP), mainly as defence counsel.

These cases were all from the last six months, and had been selected at random.

Other recent dissident sentencings include this one, of a serial republican offender caught with a haul of arms.

Speaking of the sentences in the above cases, Jim Allister said: “They’re distinctly lighter than the sentences that traditionally were handed out during the height of the Troubles.

“Twenty years ago, those sentences would have been laughed out of court.

“There has been, to me, an observable reduction in the level of sentencing being imposed by our courts, which I think is failing to provide the deterrent that the sentencing needs to provide.”

Asked what the offences might have received in the mid-1980s, for example, he said: “The offence of ‘possession in suspicious circumstances’ [which Flannigan and Holmes were both convicted of] rarely would have collected anything less than, I would have thought, five years.”

And unlike today, he said this would have been five years in prison – not half in custody, and half on licence.

“That’s the other thing which I think is now a bit of a soft landing for criminal sentences: the licence dimension,” he said.

“There’s nothing punitive about it, really.”

Corbett (20 and of Flax Street in Belfast’s Ardoyne district) was convicted of four charges under the Terrorism Act of 2000 relating to a bomb planted on a north Belfast street, which had failed to detonate.

He was not found with bomb materials, but was convicted of having a phone for terrorist purposes (as well as paramilitary-related weapon instructions and paraphernalia).

A detective at a court hearing in May 2015 (where he was refused bail) said they believed Corbett had phoned in a bomb warning after it failed to explode.

They also told the court Corbett “understood what was being planned and was an integral part of this operation”, that he was “a motivated and active member of a proscribed organisation and will continue to be involved”, and was “a violent man” who was a danger to the public.

A serving police officer phoned up the News Letter this week, voicing amazement at the sentence given to him, and saying such sentences are damaging police morale.
Mr Allister said offences of the kinds which Corbett admitted “never commanded huge sentences, it would have to be said, because very often they were more peripheral people”.

However, he added: “They still regularly collected an actual real-time sentence. There was less prevalence I think [of] suspended sentences.”

Mr Allister also wondered if Corbett could have faced a charge of conspiracy.

“No two cases are identical; there will always be circumstances maybe pertaining to the actual offence or pertaining to the actual individual which are different from those of what appear to be a parallel case.

“So you cannot say there must be a duplicate sentence in two particular cases. But you do expect a pattern in which a suspended sentence is a very rare event, rather than what appears to be emerging as the norm.”

For the last three weeks, the News Letter has been focussing on bail and sentencing handed out to people involved (or suspected of involvement) in the ongoing dissident paramilitary campaign.

It all began when Damien McLaughlin – who denies helping to murder David Black – disappeared whilst out on bail. See this link for details and for hyperlinks to coverage of the scandal.