‘If dissidents faced 20 years in jail, they might think twice’

Scene of the shooting on Sunday at a filling station on the Crumlin Road in north west Belfast.
Scene of the shooting on Sunday at a filling station on the Crumlin Road in north west Belfast.
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A DUP MLA has called for judges to start demonstrating there is a “real deterrent” to getting involved in dissident paramilitarism.

While the PSNI is confident “real strides” will be made in bringing violent dissidents before the courts after Sunday’s gun attack in Belfast, recent cases show that many offenders are being allowed to walk free even when convicted of grave crimes.

Nelson McCausland, MLA, at a Policing Board meeting in 2016

Nelson McCausland, MLA, at a Policing Board meeting in 2016

An examination by the News Letter of a trio of serious paramilitary cases spanning the last six months shows the extent to which the sentences differ from the maximum penalties available under the law (see link below).

Judges must weigh up any mitigating factors before handing down penalties, and it is rare for maximum sentences to be imposed.

But theoretically, if they had been meted out for all the offences in the cases here, it would have resulted in a cumulative total of 45 years in jail, not two-and-a-half years.

Nelson McCausland, DUP MLA for North Belfast where the most recent shooting took place, said that the sentences illustrated here offer an “inadequate” deterrent to would-be dissident paramilitaries.

All the court cases examined involve violence and/or weaponry.

All of them also involve defendants who professed their innocence or refused to answer police questions, but later admitted their crimes.

Nonetheless out of the three defendants involved, two of them – Conal Corbett and Brian Gerald Holmes – were allowed to walk away with suspended sentences.

The other man – Gerard Flannigan – was given sentences amounting to a total of two-and-a-half years of actual jail time, even though he was convicted in two separate firearms cases.


Two of the cases here are connected with the republican-dominated Ardoyne in north Belfast, where a strong dissident element has emerged.

The latest shooting (and other gun attacks against police in recent years) happened close to this district.

Chief Constable George Hamilton told the BBC’s Nolan Show on Monday there had been “real strides made in bringing people before the courts”.

“Those violent dissident republicans already know the success rate that we’ve had in recent months and years against them,” he said.

“That will continue relentlessly and I’m confident that we’ll be able to bring more and more of these people to justice and allow due process to follow through the courts.”

Mr McCausland had questioned the sentence handed down to Corbett last year, and told the News Letter: “The courts need to send out a clear message that murder, attempted murder, terrorist crimes, assisting in murder, these things are going to be dealt with seriously.”

Asked if he feels sentences of the kind set out here would have been handed down on the UK mainland, he said: “No – the sentencing in Great Britain is much more severe and appropriate...

“The impact [in Northern Ireland] is not what it should be because the sentences are not severe enough.

“If you thought you were going away for 20 years, I think you’re more likely to have a second thought about it.”

The Office of the Lord Chief Justice was asked by the News Letter how the judges arrived at the sentencing decisions in the cases set out here.

The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, is the head of the Northern Irish judiciary.

The response said: “It is not appropriate to compare the sentences imposed in different cases.

“Sentencing is a matter for each individual judge after consideration of the specific circumstances of each case.

“In calculating the appropriate sentence for the offence, the judge will have considered a range of factors specific to that case including the seriousness of the offence, the offender’s previous convictions, aggravating and mitigating factors, whether the offender pleaded guilty and at what stage in the process (a guilty plea at an early stage will attract a greater discount), the relevant law including the maximum sentence which the court can impose and any sentencing guidelines relevant to the offence committed.”

It added the Director of Public Prosecutions can refer cases to the Court of Appeal if he believes them to be too lenient.