The release of a dissident bomber on continuing bail despite her admitting to attempted murder has been described as the latest “frustrating” example of leniency towards paramilitaries by the courts.
Christine Connor, 31 and from Belfast, finally pleaded guilty on Wednesday to six terrorist charges relating to two separate bomb attacks against police in the city, after maintaining her innocence for years.
She was remanded in custody mere weeks after the spring 2013 attacks, but was freed on bail in June 2015.
Since that initial release, her bail conditions have been relaxed considerably.
And despite her guilty pleas, Judge David McFarland at Belfast Crown Court released her on the same bail terms once again as she awaits sentencing on June 20.
Whilst it had previously raised objections to bail for her, the PPS said prosecutors “considered that there were no legal grounds on which to base any objection” to Wednesday’s bail bid.
Gavin Robinson, erstwhile DUP MP for East Belfast and the party’s Westminster spokesman on justice matters (before parliament was dissolved this week), said of the court’s decision: “It’s a casual, laissez-faire approach from the bench relating to Northern Ireland terrorist offences.
“There really is too little deterrent for people who get involved in trying to subvert our state.
“It’s another sign of a continuing trend of leniency towards dissidents in Northern Ireland – and it has to stop.”
When pressing for bail on Wednesday, Connor’s defence barrister had told the court she had two “serious medical complaints”, and was set to attend medical appointments which “will not be facilitated within the prison”.
Mr Robinson said: “In all of these cases you’re going to have individual circumstances that are argued by the defence team. But there is a continuing trend of leniency towards terrorist-related offences – that’s the problem I have.”
Tom Elliott, who had been UUP MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said: “It’s very frustrating, and in particular very frustrating for victims’ families.
“They’re just wondering – what’s all this about?
“Why have we this type of law that we know she’s guilty now, we know what sort of actions she was involved in but all of a sudden she’s allowed out on bail.
“It just seems incredible.”
When first granted bail, she was was under an 8pm to 7am curfew and had to report to police daily, among other measures including surrendering her phone and passport.
By the time she appeared in court this week, she was under a 10pm to 7am curfew, and had to report to police three times per week.
This remained unchanged after her guilty pleas.
The Lord Chief Justice’s office, responsible for the judiciary, was asked three questions about Connor’s case: 1) Was any consideration given to the example of Damien McLaughlin – the Tyrone dissident who absconded whilst on bail last year – when granting bail for Connor? 2) Why were her bail terms not tightened up between now and her sentencing? 3) Is it known what kind of illness she is believed to have, or were efforts made to find out before she was freed afresh on bail?
In reply, the office released the same statement it had issued in response to a similar query by the News Letter last month.
It said: “In law there is a presumption in favour of granting bail.
“A court can only refuse bail where the prosecution has established a recognised risk (such as the defendant being likely to re-offend or interfere with witnesses or leave the jurisdiction) and it is not possible to attach conditions to the bail to address the established risk.
“In assessing what conditions should be attached to bail the court may only impose such conditions as are necessary and proportionate in the circumstances of the case.”
PPS HAVE BEEN READY FOR TRIAL FOR TWO YEARS:
Connor had been returned for trial in December 2014.
The PPS said that it served additional evidence in April 2015, “and have been ready for trial since”.
It added: “All subsequent trial dates set by the court have been adjourned on application by the defence.”
The case had been listed for trial in September 2015.
However “the defendant dismissed her legal representatives”, according to the Lord Chief Justice’s office, and so it was rescheduled.
It was listed for trial this May, then she pleaded guilty.
In total, Connor admitted two counts of possessing explosives with intent to endanger life, two counts of causing an explosion likely to endanger life, one count of attempted murder of a police officer, and one of preparation of terrorist acts.
Despite pleading guilty, she told the court she was not guilty, and was only making the pleas “on advice”.
She lured co-accused, Stuart Downes from Shrewsbury, into her plot via the internet by pretending to be a model. He faced the same six terror charges but killed himself last year.