Ben Lowry: We need a much tougher approach to dissident republican terrorist killers

Congressman Richard Neal and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi answered only three questions at Stormont on Friday, above. None of them were difficult questions relating to how the previous hard border was caused by terrorism
Congressman Richard Neal and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi answered only three questions at Stormont on Friday, above. None of them were difficult questions relating to how the previous hard border was caused by terrorism
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In 2014 I was part of a panel at an event in Belfast that was held in favour of libel law reform.

Lyra McKee was also one of the speakers that night, at the Crescent arts centre near Queen’s University.

Northern Ireland now has the most restrictive defamation laws in the United Kingdom, which makes it easier to prove that you have been libelled. In Great Britain you have to prove that your reputation has suffered serious harm.

The fact that in NI a claimant does not have to show that they have suffered serious harm, just harm, benefits anyone who wants to take a defamation case, which can include cheats and terrorists and serial litigants, and is to the disadvantage of those writers or publications who have to defend themselves.

If libel claims are made easy, then various groups of people are particularly vulnerable to libel claims including scientists, who write about failed treatments or medicines.

Lyra was speaking about libel laws from the perspective of a fledgling, freelance reporter.

It was one of only two or three times that I met her, but I remember her well. She was sparky and confident. On stage, she was chatty and fun.

I knew that she was young but now realise that she was even younger than her maturity made her seem — she was then at or under the age of 25.

One of the most important parts of journalism is bearing witness: observing important things that are happening, and then relaying them to listeners or viewers or readers.

It might be a political summit or a sporting event or a concert or a VIP visit or an accident scene or any number of different scenarios.

Lyra was doing that on Thursday, observing social disorder in Londonderry in a city that has in recent years had a fair amount of such disorder.

Most journalists in Northern Ireland have seen many riots or similar situations over the decades.

After the 2001 Holy Cross protests I regularly reported on disorder in north and east Belfast, particularly the latter, when alarming things happened around loyalist Cluan Place, an interface with the republican Short Strand.

I remember one occasion in 2002 when there was very serious disorder in the Lower Newtownards Road area and a loyalist gunman emerged to shoot at police.

On Thursday it was republican terrorists who were aiming at PSNI officers. They were not targeting a journalist, but even so it was a journalist who was killed — and a young woman too.

The general outcry reflects the fact that a line has been crossed.

Perhaps the outcry over is such that it will almost bury the ‘new IRA,’ in much the same way that the 1998 Omagh bomb atrocity led to such a ferocious public backlash that dissidents were a spent force for the following 10+ years (until experienced terrorist gunmen shot dead Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar at Massereene barracks in 2009).

After all, support for dissidents seems to remain very low in terms of elections and opinion polling.

There does not seem to be any widespread support for a return to violence in any part of the community in Northern Ireland. But terror activity in the northwest has been a concern for many years.

And much of the political reaction to it has been disturbing.

There was overwhelming nationalist opposition to the detention of Tony Taylor, the former Provisional IRA prisoner who abused his early release on licence under the Belfast Agreement by returning to violence in the 2000s.

Latterly even Simon Coveney, who as Irish deputy prime minister has used as hardline green rhetoric as any of his recent predecessors, weighed in to criticise that detention and to lecture London on it.

The British response to such brazen and deeply unhelpful Irish political interference, while the PSNI and intelligence services are trying to combat one of the most active terrorist presences in the Province, amid a severe overall terrorist threat, was a wholly typical example of UK weakness.

Karen Bradley failed to take the opportunity to, in effect, slap down Mr Coveney, and make clear that Britain would always pay close attention to security intelligence and if need be prioritise the protection of life and liberty over the rights of any dissidents.

In preceding years, the TDs Eamon O’Cuiv and Mick Wallace repeatedly criticised the supposedly heavy handed state response towards dissidents in the Northwest — thereby indirectly endorsing the ongoing cited grievances of these thugs. The most charitable explanation of their own unhelpful political interference is that the two men are dupes.

In the first decade or more after the Belfast Agreement there seemed to be a deep freeze between the Provisionals and the dissidents.

But that seems less so now. Last year, Martina Anderson MEP supported Liam Campbell in his campaign against extradition to Lithuania where he was wanted for suspected gun running.

Campbell has been found liable in a civil action for the 1998 Omagh massacre.

Meanwhile, this newspaper, almost alone, has long been examining the light sentences given to some people convicted of serious terrorist offences, including the recent suspended sentence given to a man for possessing explosives (see our story on page 8).

We have also examined the extraordinarily lenient bail policy which applies to people facing serious terrorists charges, and which has been sustained despite several high profile examples of bail terms being flagrantly breached by defendants.

This could send out a signal to people who are plotting murder and bombing that there is no serious will to confront them.

Many judges are very brave. They are themselves potential dissident targets. The overhaul of soft sentences is ultimately a matter for politicians.

Yesterday at Stormont I wanted to ask Congressman Richard Neal and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi about their repeated comments on the prospect of a hard border post Brexit, and their apparent failure to recognise that terrorism was the main reason it was hard. But they only took three questions from journalists, and faced no such uncomfortable grilling.

I then asked Michelle O’Neill if she would support tougher sentences, and she gave a non committal answer, and also Arlene Foster, who said that she would.

But it should not be an aspiration. With people dying at the hands of dissidents, now including Lyra McKee, it must be a political priority.

* Ben Lowry (@benlowry2) is News Letter deputy editor