Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Criminals at large a menace to society

A CCTV image of a man believed to be John Clifford boarding a train in Belfast
A CCTV image of a man believed to be John Clifford boarding a train in Belfast

Editor's Viewpoint

All law-abiding people will be aghast at the saga of child killer John Clifford, who is still on the run eight days after absconding on a mobility scooter. This is a farce, but it is also alarming.

As we reveal today, Clifford, who raped and strangled his eight-year-old niece Sue Ellen Clifford and then dumped her body on a deserted railway line in 1988, is one of 12 people still unlawfully at large.

Four of these are convicted killers, and one of them, who was serving a sentence for drug offences, has been on the run for 16 years.

It’s not as if Clifford has been cleverly lying low.

There are confirmed sightings of him at the Lanyon (formerly Central) Station in Belfast and at Balbriggan in the Republic. The police have recovered the mobility scooter which — by the disturbing standards of this case — may be considered as some degree of progress.

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie claims that the aim of the justice system is to “keep people out of prison” or to “get them out as soon as possible”.

This is an over-simplification, but many people will sympathise with his analysis.

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The cost of keeping people in prison is so high that it makes sense to impose a jail term only when the non-custodial alternatives fail to provide the necessary balance of deterrence and — crucially — public safety.

Given that the custodial sentences on all 12 of the present cases, including that of Clifford, were deemed appropriate, the onus is on the Department of Justice and the Prison Service to ensure that these people remain locked up.

Clearly, this is not happening.

If a rapist and child killer of the notoriety of John Clifford had absconded in England or Wales it is not hard to imagine the media and public outcry.

This would include televised images of police carrying out stop-and-search operations, as well as posters and handbills with pictures being given to the public.

This is not so in Northern Ireland, where we do not have a Justice Minister in post to be questioned, or a Stormont committee system to compel attendance when those answers are not forthcoming, or prove inadequate.

This is yet another damning indictment, if one were needed, where our politics and politicians are depressingly sclerotic —in other words rigid and unresponsive, and having lost the ability to adapt.

How long is this sorry state of affairs going to last?

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