|Damien McLaughlin, - on the run from terrorism-related charges.|
This morning I met the Chief Constable George Hamilton, ACC Stephen Martin and Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray, along with Keith Buchanan MLA. We were meeting them as members of the Policing Board for an update on the case of Damien McLaughlin.
McLaughlin is facing charges in relation to the murder of prison officer David Black who was shot dead by republican terrorists as he was travelling to work at Maghaberry in November 2012.
The charges are of preparing terrorist acts, aiding and abetting murder, belonging to a proscribed organisation and possession of an article for use in terrorism. McLaughlin first appeared in court on 20 December 2012 and remained in custody until 2 May 2014, when he was granted bail. The bail conditions included an electronic tag, a night-time curfew and daily reporting to the police.
In December 2014 and in spite of previous problems around bail conditions, the court ordered the removal of the tag. Later there was a reduction in the number of times in the week he has to sign at a police station.
His case was in the newspaper last year when a court varied his bail conditions to allow him to spend a holiday at a spa hotel in Fermanagh. Then later the address he was to live at was changed from the Ardboe area to West Belfast.
McLaughlin absconded in December, after moving to West Belfast, and within hours he may well have been across the border. The PSNI are searching for him and police services across Europe have been notified of his details.
There were failures on the part of the PSNI and they have acknowledged that. However cases such as this raise other serious issues, in particular for the court service: (1) the length of time it is taking to get these cases into court (2) the laxity of the bail conditions (3) the leniency of the sentencing regime.
There is a marked difference between what happens here and what happens in Great Britain and it has been that way for many years. There cases are heard much quicker, those charged are kept in prison and the sentencing regime is tougher.
The Ombudsman has announced that he is to look at the case and that must include not only the way that the PSNI enforced the bail conditions but the actual conditions they were asked by the Courts to enforce.
In Great Britain, anyone facing serous terrorism-related charges such as this would not be out on bail, never mind having the bail conditions relaxed to facilitate his holiday arrangements. We are not talking here about some minor misdemeanor, we are talking here about murder.
Damien McLaughlin is not some misguided teenager. He is 40 years of age and has a previous conviction back in 2009 for possession of a weapon in suspicious circumstances. Yet his bail was changed to suit his holidays and his bail conditions were such that he was able to attend republican rallies.
|Damien McLaughlin on the right, at a republican rally in West Belfast|
It was a useful meeting with the PSNI and we will continue to monitor this case. We willl also be raising it at the Policing Board in a few weeks time. We want to see the lessons learned and changes implemented.
Finally, I was astounded to find that he was out on bail with two sureties of £750! Even that is amazingly lenient. It's time for a crackdown on this lenient approach by the courts.