Trio of recent cases shows feeble punishments for dissidents

The scene of the bomb alert on the edge of Ardoyne, in which Conal Corbett was implicated
The scene of the bomb alert on the edge of Ardoyne, in which Conal Corbett was implicated
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Following Sunday night’s attack against a police officer in north Belfast, the Chief Constable spoke about making “real strides” towards putting dissident republicans before the courts.

However as the News Letter demonstrates here, even when they do manage to charge people, and the courts convict them, judges often hand down paltry sentences.

A bullet hole in a home in Ardoyne. Gerard Flannigan took possession of the gun that was used just hours later.

A bullet hole in a home in Ardoyne. Gerard Flannigan took possession of the gun that was used just hours later.

Of the three recent cases here, two are connected to the Ardoyne, the dissident hub close to the scene of the most recent shooting.

The News Letter has conducted a detailed comparison between the sentences which were actually handed down, and what the maximum sentences were at the judges’ disposal.


Conal Corbett (20 and of Flax Street in the Ardoyne area of Belfast) was given a suspended sentence on August 15, 2016, for being part of a bomb plot.

The sentence was handed down by judge Gordon Kerr at Belfast Crown Court.

The case centred on what police described as a “fairly substantial” bomb on an advertising board at Brompton Park, on the edge of Ardoyne.

It was remote controlled, and the PSNI believe it was intended to blow up officers.

It failed to detonate when triggered, and the alarm was then raised after two priests were contacted by phone.

When tracing the telephones used in the plot, police inquiries led them to Corbett.

He had purchased a phone and top-up vouchers.

When searching his house, police found items including instructions on how to assemble automatic weapons, autographs of dissident prisoners, a crossbow, and a balaclava.

Corbett was interviewed 12 times, but gave no reply to any question.

He later pleaded guilty to four charges: two counts of possessing items for terrorist-related offences (the phone and top-up vouchers), making records of information for terrorism, and possessing documents useful for terrorism.

His sentence was for 18 months, suspended for two years. By that stage he had already spent seven months on remand.

Judge Kerr said he was taking into account Corbett’s age at the time of the crime (18), and the time spent on remand.

What was the maximum sentence?

In specific legal terms, Corbett’s above crimes fall under the Terrorism Act 2000.

They were, respectively, two counts under section 57(1), one under 58(1)(a), and one under 58(1)(b).

Section 57(1) carries a maximum term of 15 years.

Section 58(1)(a)can bring a sentence of 10 years, a fine, or both.

Section 58(1)(b) can also bring a sentence of 10 years, a fine, or both.

However, under guidelines laid out by the Department of Justice in 2008, at least half of these terms must be spent on licence rather than in custody.

After taking that into account, if Corbett had been handed consecutive (as opposed to concurrent) terms for all his crimes, a judge could have imposed maximum jail time of 25 years.


Gerard Flannigan was sentenced to serve two-and-a-half years in jail for gun possession on November 21, 2016.

The sentence was handed down by judge Geoffrey Miller at Belfast Crown Court.

Flannigan (35 and from Colin View Street, west Belfast) had pleaded guilty to three firearms offences linked to a gun attack.

A Sphinx semi-automatic pistol had been used in the attack on a house at Velsheda Court in the republican Ardoyne district of north Belfast on September 3, 2014.

The court heard that three children were inside the house at the time someone opened fire, targeting a man inside.

The judge called the incident “potentially murderous”.

Flannigan was arrested after the gun was found wrapped in two plastic bags underneath his partner’s parked car the next day.

It had been spotted by a cleaner.

It was loaded; three bullets were in the clip and one was in the chamber.

Flannigan’s DNA was on the weapon, and his fingerprints were on one of the bags.

He made “no comment” responses in police interviews, before eventually issuing a statement denying knowledge of the gun, and denying that he was a paramilitary.

Nevertheless, he later pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm and ammunition in suspicious circumstances, possessing the semi-automatic pistol without a firearm certificate, and possessing ammunition without a firearm certificate.

In specific legal terms, these were breaches of Article 64(1), Article 3(1)(A), and Article 3(2) of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order, 2004.

Judge Miller pointed out that Flannigan had “offered no explanation” for how he came to have the gun, and had displayed no remorse.

He was handed a five-year sentence in total – half in jail, and half on licence.

What was the maximum sentence?

For breaching Article 64(1), the maximum term is 10 years in jail.

For breaching Article 3(1)A, the possible sentence is up to five years, or a fine, or both.

Breaching 3(2) attracts an identical sentence to Article 3(1)A.

However, as is the case with all the other sentences on these pages, the Department of Justice’s guidelines mean only half of these terms would be spent in custody.

Taking this 50% rule into account, if Flannigan had been given consecutive sentences in relation to his offences in this case, the maximum prison time he could possibly have received would have been 10 years.


Gerard Flannigan and Brian Gerald Holmes were sentenced on December 15, 2016, after being caught with a rifle.

The sentencing was delivered by judge Geoffrey Miller at Belfast Crown Court.

Less than one month earlier, Flannigan, now aged 36, had been handed a jail term for having a handgun (see case two).

For the rifle offence, he received one year in jail and another year on licence.

However, the judge said this rifle sentence would be concurrent to his handgun one; in other words it was running at the same time as his existing prison term. The net result was that he would spend no extra time in jail.

Brian Gerald Holmes (28 and of Bingnian Drive in Andersonstown, Belfast) got a two-year sentence, suspended for three years.

The judge had been told the pair were detained after police carried out a surveillance operation against dissidents in the Twinbrook area, on the south-west edge of Belfast, on April 4, 2013.

They tracked a car to Barnfield Road, a semi-rural street on the city’s outskirts.

The men got out of the vehicle. Holmes was seen apparently searching a ditch, while Flannigan entered a snow-covered field.

Police closed in and arrested them. The following day the Army found an unloaded bolt-action rifle – almost 100 years old – wrapped in bags near a tree at the scene.

It was rusty, but still in good working order.

The judge found that the rifle was for “nefarious paramilitary-related activity”.

The prosecution had suggested the gun may have been intended for a propaganda photoshoot; the judge said this was “somewhat debatable”.

Both men pleaded not guilty in April 2016 to possessing a firearm in suspicious circumstances but changed their pleas to guilty last month.

They were both convicted of breaching Article 64 (1) of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.

What is the maximum sentence?

For breaching Article 64 it is 10 years.

But since half of this would have to be spent on licence, in reality the maximum jail time would be five years.