Editorial: Politicians need to prohibit soft jail sentences for terrorist convictions in Northern Ireland

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News Letter editorial on Wednesday October 11 2023:

​​Last week Gavin Coyle, 46, from Omagh, got four years in prison for his role in a plot to murder a police office.

He admitted IRA membership and providing a car to be used by terrorists. The vehicle was used in an operation to plant a bomb under the car of a police officer in 2008, which exploded as the officer drove to work. The officer survived but with permanent disfiguring injuries.

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At Belfast Crown Court on Friday, Judge Patricia Smyth sentenced Coyle to six years, two of which are on licence. Coyle had been charged with attempted murder and causing an explosion over the 2008 bombing, but was acquitted of those counts. However, he admitted providing property for the purpose of terrorism and belonging to an outlawed terror group.

This is disgracefully inadequate sentence for such a serious offence. But not only was the offence a grievous one, Coyle had a serious terrorist record. In 2014 he pleaded guilty to possessing explosives, assault rifles and ammunition, and belonging to a proscribed organisation. He got a five year jail term for that, plus five years on licence, although he was out by 2016.

The Public Prosecution Service is considering if there is a legal ground to refer the sentence to the Court of Appeal under powers it has to refer terms deemed unduly lenient. This jail term is manifestly so.

For years, the News Letter has reported on Northern Ireland’s ultra lenient bail policy for defendants facing serious terror charges and also soft sentences given to dissidents who were convicted.

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This is ultimately a political matter. All the main Stormont parties have condemned terror such as the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, but if they cannot agree on tougher terms for serious terror offences then London should over-ride the assembly, as it has done on other issues, and legislate for new minimum terms.