Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Bail row: Northern Ireland's top judge hits back, reiterates impartiality of courts after Peter Robinson claim

Northern Ireland's top judge has stepped into the controversy over First Minister Peter Robinson questioning the impartiality of courts.

The row deepened with the unusual intervention of the Lord Chief Justice after the DUP leader claimed there is a perception within the unionist community that republicans are receiving better treatment than loyalists in the aftermath of recent arrests.

Mr Robinson asked: "How can it be that a senior republican whose terrorist activities I exposed in the House of Commons (Sean Hughes) can be given bail but loyalists on protests are not?"

In a rebuke which did not directly name the First Minister, Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan noted the comments of politicians about a "lack of impartiality" but pointed out that each bail application in a court has a "unique set of circumstances".

In a letter to the chairman of the Assembly justice committee, the DUP's Paul Givan, he reminded MLAs that "the cornerstone of our justice system" is that judges are independent and impartial.

It is important in terms of public confidence, he wrote, that the judiciary is – and is seen to be – independent of outside influence.

At Northern Ireland Question Time in Westminster, Nigel Dodds told MPs there is anger and bewilderment among people over the perception of "double standards" by the courts.

He asked Secretary of State Theresa Villiers (below): "Does she understand the bewilderment amongst ordinary people at this situation and the anger this perpetuates at the perception of double standards?"

Ms Villiers replied: "These are matters for the courts, not for me as Secretary of State nor for the police."

Mr Dodds' remarks echoed the concerns voiced by the First Minister who has been accused of attempting to interfere in the operational independence of the PSNI.

Mr Robinson also criticised PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott, saying sections of the unionist community questioned the impartiality of the police because of recent events.

Alliance justice spokesperson Stewart Dickson said it was unacceptable for politicians to try to influence the PSNI or judiciary.

"I hope that any politician, who has recently made any inappropriate comments about the PSNI or judiciary, will read this important letter and reconsider what they have said," he said.

Story so far

The arrest and remand of flag protest organisers Willie Frazer and Jamie Bryson has been called into question by First Minister Peter Robinson. He argued their detention was in contrast to south Armagh republican Sean Hughes who was bailed last week on charges connected to the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney in 2005. But Mr Robinson has come under fire for attempting to "direct" the independent courts process.

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