Belfast Telegraph

Damien McLaughlin: Dissident who's never far from the headlines

By Ivan Little

Tyrone man Damien McLaughlin who was cleared yesterday of charges linked to the dissident IRA murder of prison officer David Black is no stranger to the front pages.

He was regularly in the headlines after he was charged with having guns in 2009 and he was also one of 11 dissidents accused of wrecking their cells at Maghaberry prison seven years ago.

But after he was granted bail in the Black case McLaughlin was at the centre of a major storm when it was revealed that his release conditions had been relaxed so that he could go on a luxury spa break at one of Northern Ireland's top hotels. But republicans have long claimed that McLaughlin (41), from Kilmascully Road near Ardboe, has been the victim of an unjust legal system that was biased against him.

McLaughlin was convicted of possession of guns nine years ago and in Maghaberry two years later he took part in jail protests over conditions. He and 10 other republican prisoners were charged with causing criminal damage in May 2011. Among the others accused was Lurgan republican Colin Duffy, as well as Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton who are now serving life for the Craigavon murder of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll.

At the opening of the Black murder trial in Belfast prosecution lawyers said that the prison officer was killed on November 1, 2012 as a direct result of the jail grievances.

McLaughlin always denied any involvement in the killing which was carried out as Mr Black drove to Maghaberry along the M1 from his home in Cookstown.

The killers used an AK47 assault rifle fired from a Toyota Camry as it drew up alongside 52-year-old Mr Black. McLaughlin was adamant that he wasn't the man who had driven the Toyota across the border from Carrigallen in Co Leitrim.

Garda and PSNI officers, however, said they recognised him from CCTV in Carrigallen on the eve of the M1 ambush, although McLaughlin's lawyer Patrick Corrigan said the evidence obtained by the Garda was significantly and fundamentally flawed from the outset.

He added: "It should never have been relied upon, nor should Mr McLaughlin have been charged with these offences".

In the end, however, it was a dispute over the evidence of Leitrim garage worker Stephen Brady that led to the collapse of the case against Damien McLaughlin, who'd been accused of aiding and abetting Mr Black's murder and a number of other offences including IRA membership.

The case relied "solely" on the testimony of Mr Brady who said he supplied McLaughlin with a battery for the Toyota and saw him in the vehicle.

But the trial judge Mr Justice Colton said on Tuesday that the Garda interviews with Mr Brady were "oppressive, aggressive, hectoring and bullying".

Yesterday after the prosecution said they wouldn't be offering any other evidence the judge cleared McLaughlin who left the court without saying anything.

Mr Black's family also stayed silent, but his son Kyle later said they were devastated and thought it unlikely that anyone would ever be brought to account for the murder.

There was widespread criticism four years ago when McLaughlin was freed on bail. He'd earlier been refused compassionate bail to attend his child's christening in February 2013 after the PSNI said that they feared he would flee and that he had connections to dissident IRA groups. A year later, however, McLaughlin was released because of delays in the case.

In August 2016 McLaughlin's bail terms in relation to his curfew were altered so that he could go on a mini-break to the plush Manor House hotel in Fermanagh.

But on the first day of the new conditions coming into force he was photographed at a republican anti-internment demonstration alongside convicted terrorists Conor Casey and Sharon Rafferty.

McLaughlin also acted as a steward at a dissident march in Coalisland.

The DUP responded by questioning the court's "leniency" in giving bail to dissident republicans.

The family of the murdered prison officer had criticised the courts for granting bail to a man described as having played a central role in the killing.

But there was even more anger from politicians in January last year when it emerged that McLaughlin had disappeared and the PSNI, who last saw him several months earlier, admitted didn't know where he was.

The answer came in March 2017 when McLaughlin was arrested in Ramelton in Co Donegal

He was held under a European arrest warrant and extradited back to Northern Ireland to stand trial - a trial which fell apart yesterday.

Belfast Telegraph

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