Ben Lowry: Support from all parties for a proper response to terrorism ought to be a ‘red line’ in the talks

A bomb disposal team at the Waterfoot Hotel in Londonderry in 2015 after the hotel was evacuated due to a bomb planted ahead of a PSNI recruitment day at the venue. The dissident terrorist culprits got a weak sentence
A bomb disposal team at the Waterfoot Hotel in Londonderry in 2015 after the hotel was evacuated due to a bomb planted ahead of a PSNI recruitment day at the venue. The dissident terrorist culprits got a weak sentence

On Radio Ulster Talkback this week a caller referred to the DUP’s ‘red line’ against an Irish language act (ILA).

It is not in fact clear that the DUP has ruled out a standalone act, but it does appear that the party is heading that way, after seeming open to the idea of such legislation months ago.

Gradually the whole spectrum of unionist opinion has had time to think of the implications of such legislation (based on SF’s 2015 hardline proposals, because the party has not produced newer suggestions for an ILA) and has decided that it is unnecessary.

But saying no to someone else’s red line proposal is hardly analogous with coming up with your own red line.

It is a sign of the weak position that unionism believes itself to be in that it does not even attempt to demand things that it feels it will not get.

The unionist strategy, to get Stormont back, seems to be to minimise concessions to Sinn Fein’s list of them.

But if unionism was to go down the route of issuing red lines (and I don’t think it would be helpful if it did), then it would do well to start with this one: It should be non negotiable that all parties in government will back zero tolerance of terror.

We will never all agree on the past and whether or not terrorism was justified or indeed whether it was terrorism. My own view on that matter has been clearly stated on this page many times. But any ambivalence about past paramilitarism must not be allowed to affect our approach to terrorism now.

With regard to loyalists, a zero tolerance approach to paramilitaries would (at this point in time) be likely to focus on criminality and should lead to major confiscation of assets.

On the republican side, it would involve an overhaul of our bail policy and our sentencing.

Bail policy in the Province has been repeatedly shown to be a joke. 
People on the most serious terrorist charges are routinely granted bail.

Not only is bail granted, but breaches of bail have repeatedly gone unpunished and met with continuing bail.

The News Letter has relentlessly documented this shameful situation.

In January, Stormont backed a motion criticising bail failures by police and courts in Northern Ireland after the extraordinary saga in which Damien Joseph McLaughlin, 40, of Kilmascally Road in Dungannon, absconded while on bail in connection with charges over the murder of the prison officer David Black in 2012.

His absence was not even noticed by the PSNI for several weeks.

Crucially, the Alliance Party backed that motion. It showed that this is a topic in which unionism can gain the support of sensible people in the political centre ground.

The other problem that needs overhauled is the weak sentences that are handed out to people convicted of serious dissident terrorist offences.

McLaughlin, for example, pleaded guilty in May 2011 to two charges of possessing articles for use in terrorism (namely, two sniper scopes). Possessing articles for use in terrorism can carry a sentence of up to 15 years – to which the 50% licence rule would apply.

He was sentenced to four years and six months – half in custody, half on licence but was free by the end of the year. When the News Letter asked why, the Department of Justice cited data protection and refused to tell us.

It is likely that the release was due to time spent in custody.

There have been multiple cases in which utterly inadequate sentences have been issued for terror crimes.

In 2016, Conal Corbett, 20, of Flax Street, Ardoyne, got a suspended jail term for his role in a major bomb bid.

Also in 2016, Gerard Flannigan, 35, of Colin View Street, west Belfast, got only two-and-a-half years in jail after being convicted of possessing two separate guns in incidents one year apart.

At the end of that year, Brian Gerald Holmes, 28, of Bingnian Drive in Andersonstown, Belfast walked free with a suspended sentence for rifle possession.

On Thursday Brian Walsh and Darren Poleon, both of Co Meath, were given five years behind bars for trying to blow up a police recruitment event in 2015.

Imagine that the bomb at the Waterfoot Hotel, Londonderry had gone off and killed a handful of police officers, a number of young people who were considering a career in the PSNI and three or four other civilians who were passing through the hotel.

Such a massacre would be a grievous crime and recognised as such by almost everyone across society.

So why can we not all agree that attempting to carry out such a massacre is worthy of much more than five years in prison?

This ought to be uncontroversial.

Or if some people think it is controversial, then we ought to be able to say: “Tough, we aren’t sharing power with anyone who cannot agree to that.”

Such a red line is at least as reasonable as saying you won’t share power over lack of an Irish language act.

Support for the authorities as they work against terrorists who are plotting murder must include support for revoking the release of prisoners who previously freed on licence if the Secretary State thinks it necessary.

Yet, as a depressing sign of our deepening polarisation in Northern Ireland, far from there being consensus on such security measures, the very opposite is happening.

Nationalists in the SDLP and Sinn Fein are rallying round Tony Taylor, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1994 for IRA activity, was jailed for three years in 2011 for possession of a rifle, and again in 2016 when his licence was revoked.

Even so, a robust state response to terrorism is the duty of all governments and anyone who cannot accept that is not fit for office.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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