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UK News Ben Lowry: Only this newspaper repeatedly covered how Adrian Ismay’s murderer was allowed to abuse Northern Ireland’s slack bail policy

15:55  28 november  2020
15:55  28 november  2020 Source:   newsletter.co.uk

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After the first lockdown, sales went down further.

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But then they began to recover. Sales on Saturday, the biggest day of our week, are where they were before lockdown. Meanwhile, many readers are taking out digital subscriptions (the web version of this article will explain how to do so).

People still want to know what is happening around them and journalists help uncover them.

We are not a large paper but have nonetheless helped lead the coverage of many matters.

One that is topical now, after Christopher Robinson has been jailed for murdering Adrian Ismay, is Northern Ireland’s shambolic bail policy in serious terror cases.

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Before considering that, think for a moment about Robinson’s character. He sussed out his target by pretending to be, like Ismay, a St John Ambulance volunteer. You can see why even a person who is at risk from terror might drop their guard in that setting, assuming goodwill in other volunteers.

Ismay was killed in 2016. In May that year Robinson was granted bail by Mr Justice Colton, despite being on a murder charge and despite both the police and Public Prosecution Service (PPS) opposing bail.

Bail conditions included a curfew and wearing an electronic tag.

That night at 2.25am police called at his house and got no reply. They returned after 6am to arrest him. He was brought before a court but granted bail again by a district judge. PSNI and PPS opposed it.

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That night, the security firm reported an issue with his tag. The next day, he was brought before a court. Again, PSNI/ PPS opposed bail. But the court was told that Robinson’s tag had come loose after a fall. Bail was granted a third time, by another district judge.

Three times this man on a murder charge came before different judges, three times PSNI and PPS opposed his bail but three times it was granted (despite two breaches).

Robinson’s lawyers said he was being harassed by police.

It got worse. On bail, Robinson engaged in sinister online chats.

Meanwhile in other cases, people on dissident charges got bail for events such as weddings and holidays in Donegal. Our reporter Adam Kula revealed much of it.

At the time I spoke to lawyers in England, who said a person in Great Britain on an Islamic terror murder charge would not get bail.

I asked lawyers in NI if there were safeguards to balance our slack policy. Would it, for example, be acceptable for police to break down the door if a man bailed for murder was not home as required? I was told police would have to show they had reasonable suspicion he was elsewhere. Breaking down a door might be excessive.

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Weeks after Robinson’s repeated abuse of bail, Damien McLaughlin absconded when charged over the murder of the prison officer David Black (he was later acquitted).

McLaughlin was first granted bail in May 2014, and that December a court ordered removal of his tag (despite PPS/police objections).

Over time judges cut the number of days he had to report to police (from daily, to five, then three). The requirement was removed entirely so he could stay at Galgorm spa near Ballymena, then to visit Manor House Hotel in Fermanagh.

On one trip when he was granted bail to attend a spa, he attended a political protest. On another, he attended a republican parade.

In September 2016, he and Christopher Robinson — both facing murder charges — attended an anti-PSNI protest in west Belfast

On November 18 2016 he signed bail for the last time for six weeks until on December 23 police searched his home to find him missing. Not until January 3 did police notify prosecutors of this.

McLaughlin was later arrested in Donegal and extradited to trial in Belfast. He was cleared of murder.

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His abscond finally ignited interest in bail policy at Stormont. A motion calling for a review of it was opposed by Sinn Fein, SDLP and Greens (who saw no problem).

If a person on a major Islamic terror charge was granted bail in England, then absconded, and then not even been noticed missing for weeks, the home secretary would probably have had to quit. The prime minister would face outrage.

In Northern Ireland, nothing has changed. Bail policy remains slack and sentencing for terrorists often derisory, such as the dissidents jailed this month who plotted to target PSN I and prison officers (not one got more than five years).

In an interview last year I asked the lord chief justice Sir Declan Morgan about bail policy. He said he had “since at least 2012 been hounding the Department of Justice to change the law in NI in relation to the committal system”.

As I write this, you can be sure dissidents are plotting to murder someone, somewhere.

But for Stormont this seems to be a low priority.

When Sinn Fein were still keeping the assembly down until their demands were met, I suggested a policy demand unionists could make: insist that all parties back a robust legal approach to people who still think they have a political right to end the life of other human beings.

But no. Our shambolic bail policy is unchanged, and barely discussed.

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

• Ben Lowry: The dark days of November do not seem so bad this year

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This is interesting!