Ben Lowry: We should not merely condemn dissident attacks after they happen, we must ask hard questions now

Police officers at the scene of the shooting at a petrol station on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast
Police officers at the scene of the shooting at a petrol station on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast
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Ten days ago a policeman could have been killed in a dissident attack in north Belfast.

The terrorists were clearly determined to murder an officer, so it is reasonable to fear that in the coming weeks or months another PSNI officer or group of officers will be killed in a similar incident.

David Black, murdered in a dissident attack

David Black, murdered in a dissident attack

On-run terror suspect had got light jail term

McLaughlin’s light jail term: Prosecutors ‘had no grounds to appeal it’

Or perhaps one of the republican bombs that are now being found and made safe will explode and murder members of the security forces. Such a blast might even happen in a place where it kills civilians.

We know that in any of the above eventualities, two things will happen:

Prison Officer Adrian Ismay, murdered in a dissident attack

Prison Officer Adrian Ismay, murdered in a dissident attack

First, there will be cross-party, cross-border, cross-UK and perhaps international condemnation of the murderers, expressions of revulsion and sympathy for victims.

Second, there will be close scrutiny of the security forces and their response to the dissident threat prior to the attack.

Did they act on warnings?

Did they respond efficiently on the day in question?

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor, in the paper's Belfast offices

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor, in the paper's Belfast offices

Did they arrest people quickly enough in the aftermath? And so on.

It is possible that somebody somewhere will complain to the ombudsman about PSNI failings, and a major probe will be launched.

That might well be appropriate. But we must, as a society, send out a signal now that in this increasingly likely scenario of terror deaths we will not let scrutiny fall solely on the PSNI – the very people most at risk from this terrorism, alongside prison officers.

We must make clear that we will ask questions about wide-ranging failures in the response to this urgent threat.

There is the failure to get behind the intelligence agencies, now a key line of defence as they frantically try to gather information (and, we should hope, recruit informers) on the murder gangs. Will the SDLP concede it was wrong to stand outside MI5 HQ with spook signs some years ago?

There is the lenient bail policy towards serious dissident charges, on which we have reported for months – well before the McLaughlin case. Bail is granted for offences including murder and often amended to facilitate holiday breaks by the defendants.

After the McLaughlin disappearance, the matter took weeks to come before Stormont. When it did the Greens and SDLP could not even bring themselves to back a motion stating that there is a problem with bail policy in NI. Needless to say Sinn Fein didn’t.

It took the Alliance Party and the Justice Minister Claire Sugden a week to say anything about the McLaughlin scandal (until this newspaper asked).

BBC Northern Ireland did not even update the story beyond its court report in the weekend after the extraordinary news of the abscond.

There is the hopelessly lenient sentencing policy for serious dissident offences.

The state has a duty to protect life. Yet it is not at all clear that the authorities see any risk of failure in that role.

See below a full set of links to Adam Kula’s outstanding coverage of the twin bail and sentencing scandals.

Scroll through the stories. Note that when we ask prosecutors why they did not appeal one feeble sentence after another, they typically say there were no grounds.

Note that when we ask the courts, they say sentencing is for judges and that they do not comment on individual cases.

Note, as cited above, the passivity of many politicians.

And note that the state broadcaster seems not to be investigating these questions with the urgency they deserve.

Again ask yourself: when someone loses their life, are we merely going to say ‘how tragic’ and accept at face value the universal condemnations as a sign that we all did what we could to prevent it?

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

• Links to previous bail scandal stories:

Jan 29: Sugden fails to explain week-long wait

Jan 27: Dissident sentences ‘would have been laughed at during Troubles’

Jan 27: Morning View – Sentences given to convicted dissidents are plainly inadequate

Jan 25: Stormont call for urgent bail review after missing man case

Jan 25: Feeble response to dissidents ‘is damaging police morale’: serving officer

Jan 24: Trio of recent cases show feeble punishments for dissidents

Jan 24: ‘If dissidents faced 20 years in jail, they might think twice’

Jan 23: Bail policy concerns after dissident murder bid on Belfast officer

Jan 14: Bail scandal: judiciary say nothing, justice minister takes week to respond

Jan 14: Ben Lowry – There has been alarming indifference to the bail scandal

Jan 13: I trust the Lord Chief Justice will apologise for bail scandal, says Jim Allister

Jan 12: Probe begins into PSNI

Jan 12: Late and little - DoJ respond to News Letter

Jan 12: Police waited until after Christmas break to act

Jan 12: PPS did not object to ‘unbelievably laughable’ sureties

Jan 12: DOJ started bail decisions review in October

Jan 11: Timeline of a fiasco

Jan 11: DoJ silent over what it is doing – if anything

Jan 11: Despite police apology these questions remain

Jan 10: PSNI finally apologise to David Black’s family

Jan 10: We must review matters urgently says Black son

Jan 10: PSNI finally break silence over suspect’s disappearance

Jan 10: Policing Board man ‘appalled’ by terror suspect’s disappearance

Jan 10: Sureties were eight times lower than family suggested

Jan 9: Morning View – A terror accused goes missing and police have nothing to say

Jan 7: Ben Lowry – No other country in the West would treat terror charges as lightly as Northern Ireland does

Jan 7: Disappearance of David Black suspect ‘utterly outrageous’

Jan 7 Morning View: Courts must urgently explain lenient bail policy for terror cases

Jan 6: David Black accused ‘not seen by police since November’