Belfast Telegraph

Something is wrong with our justice system when terror crimes are dealt with so leniently

Recent sentences for those guilty of terrorism offences show we need to re-examine sentencing guidelines, says Nelson McCausland

In a recent court case, a Belfast republican admitted purchasing a mobile phone and vouchers linked to the discovery of a remote-controlled bomb in Ardoyne. Conal Corbett had already spent seven months on remand for four related offences, but for this offence he was given an 18-month sentence, suspended for two years.

The bomb had been left behind an advertising hoarding at Brompton Park and the intention of the terrorists was to murder police officers.  A group calling itself the New IRA claimed responsibility for the attack, and during a search of Corbett’s home the police found a document explaining how to assemble an AK47 rifle.

Most people looking at this will find that the sentencing guidelines to which our judiciary must adhere are both inadequate and incomprehensible for involvement in such serious terrorist offences.

By way of benchmarking this sentence here at a local level, a number of people have been sentenced to six months, suspended for three years, for playing a flute and breaching a determination by the Parades Commission.

I am convinced that anywhere else in the United Kingdom, involvement in a bomb attack, however peripheral, would have been given a longer custodial sentence and the sentence would not have been suspended. Clearly, there is something wrong with the system’s sentencing guidelines.

The Ardoyne case came in the wake of a number of other sentences imposed under our sentencing regime which I, and other laypeople, find difficult to comprehend.

In one of these, three “high-risk” republican prisoners were back out on the streets of Northern Ireland less than two years after being jailed for their part in running a terrorist training camp near Gortin.

The camp included a makeshift firing range, and evidence presented to a court confirmed that the terrorists were planning to murder police officers, a prison officer and a judge. Yet they were out of prison in less than two years.

The current sentencing regime for serious terrorist offences is simply too lenient, and these cases highlight what is one of the major issues around removing paramilitarism from our society. That is whether the current sentencing guidelines are appropriate for these types of cases.

The Omagh case came to court after a lengthy surveillance operation that required considerable resources from the PSNI and MI5. It seems to me that both the PSNI and MI5 are being let down by the courts.

Serious terrorist crimes require longer sentences than are currently available to our judiciary. A stronger sentencing regime would send out a clear message to the terrorists and to society. Longer sentences would also have a greater impact on the operation of these organisations. The sentences should more adequately reflect the seriousness of the crimes and the resources that are required to put the terrorists behind bars.

Recently I tried to get a better understanding of how judges decide on an appropriate sentence. The starting point is the maximum sentence set down in statute for a particular offence. After that it is down to the judges, who consider previous decisions, particularly in the Court of Appeal, and there is also a Lord Chief Justice’s Sentencing Group.

The whole matter seems to be extremely complex, but anyone with a quiet weekend and nothing else to do could read through the information on the Judicial Studies Board for Northern Ireland website, which even has a page dedicated to sentencing guidelines for terrorist offences.

The issue is broader than just the sentencing of dissident republican prisoners and extends to the granting of bail to prisoners awaiting trial on terrorist offences and the conditions attached to such bail.

I accept that the judiciary must operate within sentencing guidelines, but am I alone in thinking it bizarre when bail conditions are varied to allow someone facing a terrorist charge to go off for a week’s holiday in Donegal or to spend a week in a luxury hotel in Fermanagh?

Northern Ireland needs a serious conversation about sentencing guidelines for serious terrorist crimes. Those involved in the justice system should be prepared to explain why the regime appears so lenient.

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