Review of Bail Policy in Cases of Terrorism and Murder

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 24 January 2017.

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Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker 11:45, 24 January 2017

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Members, before I call Mr Beattie to move the motion, I am sure that you are all aware that there are active legal proceedings in relation to a man suspected of involvement in the murder of prison officer David Black who has failed to answer bail. I do not want to inhibit the discussion on the operation of bail policy in cases of terrorism and murder, which is a matter of public interest, but, in accordance with my responsibilities under Standing Order 73, I caution Members to be particularly careful that they say nothing in their contributions in today's debate that might in future prejudice the outcome of proceedings relating to Mr Black's murder. Members who deliberately flout the sub judice rule will be asked to resume their seats.

Members should also recognise that anything they say that contributes to a substantial risk of serious prejudice to these criminal proceedings may be a contempt of court at common law, to which privilege in the House affords no defence.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the recent failures in the criminal justice system to ensure that a man suspected of involvement in the murder of prison officer David Black abided by bail conditions; expresses concern at the granting of bail in this case, the low level of sureties required and the length of time taken by the PSNI to realise that this individual had absconded; believes that terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed; calls on the Minister of Justice to ensure that steps are taken to see that the suspect is returned to custody; and further calls on the Minister of Justice to take urgent steps to review bail policy in Northern Ireland, with particular regard to cases involving murder and terrorism.

I will attempt to keep in lane, keep my lurgy inside and not cough over the Justice Minister, who might want to stay back.

Northern Ireland has been scourged by terrorism for far too long. Yes, it has diminished since 1998, and we had a good debate on the Belfast Agreement yesterday, but it is still here. It is beginning to feel like part of the fabric of this country, and that is extremely sad. We have, of course, tried to minimise the effects of terrorism and have changed the words: we use the terms "paramilitary activity" or "dissidents", but it is terrorism and they are terrorists. They terrorise all our communities, and west Belfast has suffered far more than most. They force their will on others through threats of violence, and they shoot, maim and kill our elderly, our children — anybody in society. It is the worst of crimes because it undermines the state. It attempts to promote a cause — any cause — through terror. It must be stopped, and it must be seen to be stopped. Therefore, we must have robust structures for dealing with those linked to terrorism or, indeed, those charged with terrorist offences, including strict bail conditions or stopping bail if we believe somebody is involved in terrorism. We need our independent and impartial justice system to have a look at its processes.

Recently, we have seen a case of a suspect from Lurgan — a suspect — who was possibly involved in a terrorist offence, being given leave this year to go on holiday to Spain. A suspect in the murder of prison officer Black — I fully accept what you said, Mr Speaker — due to face court this year has had his bail conditions varied and his electronic tag removed. He previously had to report seven days a week but that has been reduced to just five days a week. Last year, he was given leave to change his bail so that he could go on a three-day spa holiday. That same individual has now not been seen since 18 November, and I will touch on that slightly later. Can you imagine how the Black family feels at this moment in time? Completely let down by the justice system. I will put this in unashamedly and I mentioned it yesterday. I will do it because it is important to me. You have to contrast those two examples that I have just given you with that of a 75-year-old veteran who has been investigated twice already. He has now been charged and, at 75, has been classed as a flight risk and has not been allowed to vary his bail conditions. You can see that there is a perception to many that our impartial justice system needs rebalanced.

The Chief Constable is under pressure on many fronts. He and his force are doing a sterling and fantastic job, but they are concerned about the imposition of bail conditions. The Chief Constable said so yesterday. Their job is to gather evidence and present the evidence, and it is for the justice system to take the lead thereafter. If the justice system allows bail, it is up to the PSNI to impose those bail conditions. The PSNI has questions to answer. Why did it take them so long to realise that a suspect in a murder who was on bail had done a runner and that they had not seen him since 18 November? They did not realise until 23 December. It is embarrassing to say the least, and the PSNI needs to look at its structures.

Our justice system must realise as well that, if it disregards what the PSNI is saying to it, it undermines the duty of the state to protect those living in it. What do I mean by that? If the PSNI opposes a terrorist suspect going on bail and the justice system says, "Nah, not listening to you. We are sending him on bail", then it is undermining the PSNI and undermining the state.

Detective Chief Superintendent Murray said only this month:

"In terms of the ability of police to keep track of offenders according to bail conditions it can be very, very difficult."

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I understand entirely the point that is being made about the courts' attitude to bail undermining the PSNI, but is there also not, sadly, in the instant case, an indication that the PSNI undermined itself by not checking for over a month why someone who was meant to be signing five days a week had not signed and where they were? Is there not a big burden on the PSNI, when there are bail terms, to make sure that they are imposed?

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. You are absolutely right, and I said as much. The police have questions to answer because it is an embarrassing failure for the PSNI not to have noticed that that individual had absconded and that they had not seen him for over five weeks. You are absolutely right. I do not think that any of us should shirk from pointing the finger at the police and saying, "You must have a look at your structures". I am certainly in favour of that.

The motion asks that we address the safeguarding of our society. The moment we have a suspect in a terrorist case — we talked about terrorism at the very start — and release him on bail without strict bail conditions, we are putting society at risk. Suspect terrorists should remain in custody when the evidence supports the allegation or for as long as possible to allow the justice proceedings to be completed. For me, that makes absolute sense. If the evidence is there, keep him in jail and let justice run its course.

For those who say the speed of justice is far too slow in Northern Ireland, that is a completely different issue, and I ask the Justice Minister to look at and address that speed. But that does not counter the fact that we are releasing out into the country somebody who is potentially dangerous. If he was a danger to children — if he was a paedophile — we would not think twice about not releasing him back into society. We would hold him until justice had dealt with him. I have to say that I view them as virtually one and the same.

We must review bail conditions in cases of murder or terrorist offences. Bail must be an exception. They must give the reason why they are going to give them bail. I ask everybody to think about how we need more stick than carrot sometimes here in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Brenda Hale Brenda Hale DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Would the Member agree with me that the burden of proof should be on the judicial system to say why it would forgo the PSNI and intelligence to let these people go free on bail?

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I thank the Member for her intervention. You are absolutely right, and you probably put that far better than I could have. I totally agree with you.

We stood here yesterday and condemned the attack on a police officer in north Belfast. We all condemned the attack and stood united, and I was happy to stand with everybody in the House to condemn that. Those responsible, if caught, should not get bail. If you believe that is the case, you must support the motion.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I support the motion. David Black, a member of my constituency, left his home, like we all did this morning, on 1 November and drove to his work. I worked with David many times in the voluntary sector back in the late 1990s. He was a true gentleman, father and public servant.

There are concerns among many in our community, especially in mid-Ulster, about the criminal justice system, in particular the case of the man accused of involvement in the murder of David Black. That was a brutal ambush, planned and carried out by terrorists and cowards who targeted and shot a family man who had for over 30 years served Her Majesty's Government in the Prison Service. Many believe bail should never have been an option for someone accused of such a serious offence.

Following the recent disclosure of the breach of bail conditions by the individual charged with offences in connection with the murder of Mr Black, I and my Policing Board colleague Nelson McCausland sought a meeting with the Chief Constable back on 13 January. Mr McCausland and I met the Chief Constable, Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin and Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray, head of the serious crime branch, and we were able to ask direct questions about this issue. This was the second time the bail conditions for the man accused of this offence had been questioned. In August last year, his bail conditions were relaxed to allow him to reside in a luxury hotel from 7 August until Tuesday 9 August.

During that time, he was photographed with a convicted republican terrorist at a city centre parade. It has been reported that McLaughlin volunteered as a steward at a dissident republican march in Coalisland on Easter Sunday. Kyle Black, son of David Black, said in August 2016 that he wished his father still had his basic human right of living, never mind being able to go away on a luxury weekend break. On too many occasions, the human rights of the accused are considered. We must keep in mind the human right —

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Given the point that was made about the attempted murder of the policemen in north Belfast, who, I am pleased to say, is making good progress, will the Member agree with me that stories such as the one that he has outlined to the House completely undermine public confidence in the judicial system? Frankly, that confidence is eroded daily when people hear that convicted criminals are treated in such a way by this state.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree 100% with that. The criminal justice system does not give confidence to the community. When people are involved in an attack, such as the one the other night in north Belfast, justice has to be served, and that signal has to be sent out.

David Black lost his human rights that November. They were taken away by a coward who drove up alongside the man on his way to his work. That is not the only case in which bail conditions have been breached by those charged with serious terrorist offices. The person who has been charged with the murder of Adrian Ismay has breached his bail conditions no fewer than five times. Five times. Those cases must be reviewed, and we need assurances from the judiciary that those failings will be investigated and addressed.

It must be stated that the police are forced to deal with the bail conditions granted by the judiciary. It must not be forgotten that suspects across the rest of the United Kingdom who are accused of such serious crimes would not be granted bail. The granting of bail would simply not be considered in equivalent cases in Great Britain, but, despite repeated breaches, that is still happening in Northern Ireland. Although we recognise the difficulties that the police face, questions remain about why action was not taken more quickly when it became clear that Mr McLaughlin had not reported to a police station. I was pleased to hear that efforts had been made to track down that individual, and particularly that there had been cooperation with other police forces across Europe. It is important that the issue is being investigated by the Police Ombudsman.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree with me that, when you look at that instance and the continued segregation of dissident republicans, the judicial system is potentially weighted in favour of that section of the community?

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I agree with the Member. That section of the community seems to get more lenient trials and sentences. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

The fact that the Chief Constable stated that the Police Ombudsman had started an investigation without a complaint being made underlines the seriousness of the case. Although the investigation will not impact on the root cause of the problem — whether bail is granted — it will identify any failures in how the police have handled the case. The Member who spoke previously referred to the five- to six-week delay in the police investigating the breach of bail conditions.

Having raised serious concerns regarding bail conditions with the Justice Minister in September, I have also written to the Lord Chief Justice on the issue. In her response to my correspondence on 12 October 2016, the Minister of Justice stressed that the judiciary is independent of government and that the monitoring of bail conditions is the matter for the PSNI, which, again, has complete operational autonomy for the day-to-day running of individual cases and operational decisions. I will continue to press the police and the judiciary about their actions. The public and, in particular, the families of those who have suffered at the hands of terrorists —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

— deserve to know that proper action is being taken to bring those who are responsible for such serious crimes to justice. The police and judiciary should keep them where they belong until they stand trial, and, if they are convicted, they should serve a time that is relevant to the crime.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Beidh Sinn Féin ag caint in éadán an rúin seo inniu. Sinn Féin opposes the motion. It is now just shy of seven years since we had the transfer of policing and justice powers to the North. That is an ongoing work in progress to ensure that our justice system is democratically reformed, is made transparent, acts in the interests of all sections of society and, most importantly, is predicated on a human rights framework. Unfortunately —

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I have only started. Unfortunately, the motion from the UUP pushes back on that work. We are not opposed to a review of bail policy, but we are opposed on human rights grounds to the proposed blanket ban that emerges from the motion for anyone charged with scheduled offences or the offence of murder.

I want to set out briefly the context or basis of bail law. What must be paramount in all our minds and in the House is that for all citizens there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Bail law in this place is governed by article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right of liberty and security of the person. No one should be deprived of their liberty in an arbitrary fashion, and a blanket ban throws up that connotation. Every individual application for bail should be judged on its own merits and should not be subject to any type of blanket ban. A prisoner on remand should be tried within a reasonable period and every prisoner on remand has a qualified right to release pending a trial.

The difficulty is that many prisoners have experienced inordinate and unacceptable delays while on remand in custody awaiting trial. This has been highlighted by numerous judicial figures and civil liberties organisations here in Ireland and abroad in recent years. It has created the perception of a form of legalised internment by remand or — under another description — by some form of administrative detention. The difficulty with that perception is that it directly and explicitly undermines the profile of our justice system in the North.

It is rather ironic that the motion has been tabled by the UUP, the very party that introduced internment without trial in 1971.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP 12:15, 24 January 2017

Thank you for giving way. At the start, you mentioned our seven-year journey. I am 44 years old. I have been on a journey in this country for 44 years. We have seen no peace and no real stability in this country for 44 years. Can you tell me, as spokesman for your party, how long this journey will take? I do not find seven years acceptable, never mind 44 years.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Thanks for the intervention. The key, Robbie, is that we build the peace and we build the peace together and collectively by restoring public confidence in these institutions, working together to ensure that we entrench democratic reform on the journey of change that we are all on and ensuring that every citizen in this society enjoys justice before the law and that the rights of all citizens are protected under the law and with due regard to human rights.

The logic of the UUP position, if considered, and I go back to what Doug said in his opening remarks in relation to the —

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

On a point of order, I understand that the honourable Member for South Antrim is new to this Chamber, but could he please refrain from referring to Members as "Doug" or "Robbie"? He should address them either by their proper title — the Member for whatever constituency — or their full name.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I agree with the Member who raised the point of order. We should refer to Members by their position or their proper title.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Thanks for that unhelpful intervention from the Member on the other side of the House.

The point I was making was that the logic of the UUP position is that bail should not have been granted to the British army veteran charged in connection with the fatal shooting of John Pat Cunningham in Benburb in 1974. That is the difficulty when we begin to take an arbitrary or piecemeal approach to these issues.

There are, of course, conditions and circumstances in which bail can and should be denied, but the court must be satisfied that there were and are reasonable grounds for continued detention before a denial of bail can be justified. There are potential grounds for the denial of bail, such as a danger that the defendant might fail to attend for trial, interfere with evidence or interfere with witnesses, and so on. Let the court decide the terms of bail with judicial impartiality and not through direct political interference.

The police, who have responsibility for the monitoring and governance of bail conditions, have been rightly criticised in relation to the case mentioned in the motion today. The difficulty with police monitoring of bail conditions extends way beyond this case and relates to their failure in their duty of care to monitor defendants on bail, ranging from alleged death drivers to those charged with murder. That is a real source of anger in working-class communities that suffer the worst antisocial behaviour.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

In conclusion, the motion has been badly framed. It undermines the core assumptions underpinning bail law. If its corollary is followed, its effect would be to hollow out —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

— the human rights framework of our justice system.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I remind Members who wish to use examples in their contribution that sub judice rules apply to active criminal proceedings in which there has been an arrest.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Speaker, on the very last point that you raised, I do not intend to cross any lines in respect of due process and the rule of law at any time, including in relation to the ongoing proceedings arising from the murder of David Black. I say that for all the reasons of principle but also reasons of humanity. Like other Members in the Chamber, I attended the home of the Black family and the funeral of that prison officer. When you travel down the M1 heading south and west, you pass the place where that murder took place. Given that experience, I certainly will not cross lines in respect of the rule of law and due process, so as to maximise the opportunities for a successful prosecution in that case for anybody who may be involved.

There is a danger — we have heard it in one or two comments that have been made in the debate — that, whatever the criticisms may be of the police and the criminal justice system in this case and others, we do extravagant damage to policing and criminal justice. In earlier interventions, there was an exchange that included the phrase that the case completely undermines confidence in the administration of justice. In a separate exchange in the debate earlier, there was a claim that the criminal justice system is weighted in favour of one community over another when it comes to sentencing and bail policy. Those are extravagant claims that are not justified based on the evidence. Whilst this case is a bad one and a hard one, and whilst there may be others like it, we should not draw conclusions about the character of the police —

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will shortly.

— and criminal justice systems in the way that some of the extravagant language has suggested today.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I made the assertion to the House that some of the decisions in terms of bail being relaxed undermine confidence. I stand by that comment. My colleague from Mid Ulster pointed out that there are criminals released on bail who have that bail relaxed so that they can stay in luxury hotels or attend and help to organise dissident rallies, or indeed speak at those rallies and inflame people who attend them. Surely that is proof that that sort of thing can happen. I was not making any assertions or sweeping statements across the community about one community being given preference over another, but clearly such actions undermine confidence. When people come through your constituency doors or contact your office, you see that that undermines confidence.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Yes, there will be cases, in all our experience and in all our communities, that undermine confidence. However, to assert, on the far side of that, that that completely undermines confidence and that the criminal justice system code sees one section of the community getting more lenient trials than the other — that is not based on fact, and we must base our assessments on fact. I agree that there is upset and exasperation around this case, but I do not agree with the extravagance of some people.

In my view, the most enduring change since the Good Friday Agreement has been what was achieved in relation to policing and criminal justice. The policing change has slowed down since 2007 — the big great work of policing reform was done between 2002 and 2007 — and I want to see more radical reform when it comes to the criminal justice system, but I do not take away from what has been achieved in both regards.

I certainly do not take away from the contribution being made by the judiciary in Northern Ireland to framing a society that upholds the right principles and applies human rights standards across the board without fear or favour.

There are two issues with bail. One is police bail, which nobody has commented on so far. There is a sense that, when somebody is apprehended, they are given police bail too quickly. You can go into parts of west Belfast where the experience of the police and police bail in certain cases has led to a sense in the community that the state does not work on behalf of them or to their benefit. The police have to tighten their processes on police bail in appropriate cases.

I am sure that the judiciary can hear this debate, and I am sure that they have heard the criticism. I have no doubt that the Lord Chief Justice will act on legitimate public concern, but that is what we should allow to happen: a response to legitimate public concern. However, we should not invert the rule of law and bail procedure, as per the part of the motion that says:

"terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed".

That means that a suspect in custody for a lesser offence —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

— will not be granted bail. That is disproportionate.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I support the motion, even though we have some minor issues with the wording. For instance, it calls on the Minister of Justice to:

"ensure that steps are taken to see that the suspect is returned to custody".

That places an onus on the Minister that she will not be able to fulfil. I do not know what steps the sponsors of the motion have in mind beyond the obvious.

The motion also states:

"terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed".

There has to be a measure of discretion allowed to the judiciary to allow cases not to be put back ad infinitum without the threat that the accused may have to be released from custody if the case is not brought forward. I am not going to defend Mr McLaughlin in any way, but I note that his original bail was set in May 2014. I cannot help thinking that, if he had been remanded in custody, we would be having a different debate. I would query keeping someone in custody pending trial for almost three years. He has obviously breached generous bail conditions, which allowed him to take holidays, and it seems to have taken the PSNI far too long to realise that he had disappeared. As we speak, he is still at large. So, with the caveat that I mentioned, the question is this: "Why should a terrorist murder suspect have been given bail in the first place?". What message does it send to the family — in this case, the family of David Black — that someone accused of complicity in the murder of their loved one should be allowed to move freely, to take holidays, to put up minimal surety, to have their tag removed, to have their conditions of reporting to the police varied in their favour and then to abscond? What message does that send to a family?

This is not the first time, as others have mentioned. In the case of the murder of Adrian Ismay, the suspect — Christopher Robinson — did not have his bail revoked despite numerous breaches. In my opinion, there were two breaches, but Mr Buchanan said that there were five. It was only finally revoked because he put something inappropriate on social media.

As somebody else said, this would not be tolerated across the water. People over there do not understand why a terrorist suspect over here would ever be released on bail; it just would not happen in the rest of the UK. We are talking about different types of terrorist, but it just would not happen there.

Going back to the recent case of Damien McLaughlin, he apparently disappeared on 18 November, and it was not noticed, it appears, until 23 December — five weeks later. A further two weeks elapsed before it was brought to the attention of the court. How many times was he supposed to check in during that period? All that reinforces the thrust of the motion, which is that terrorist suspects should not be granted bail initially and a full review of bail policy — something that, I understand, the Minister has said she has instigated — should be thorough and meaningful.

I look forward to the Ulster Unionist Member winding up the motion and the Minister's response, and I think the main objective of the motion, subject to the caveats that I have expressed, is to err on the side of caution in terrorist-related situations. The motion is well made and is worthy of support. I hear the comments from Sinn Féin about human rights and the European Convention and so on. In the real world, frankly, it makes no sense to release terrorist suspects into the community, but I express the cautionary note that, frankly, you cannot keep them there for ever if the case is not coming forward. In this case, we go back to the fact that, if Damien McLaughlin were on remand in custody now, we would be having a different debate. Three years to bring a case to court is too long, and that goes back to the slowness of justice that Mr Beattie mentioned.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance 12:30, 24 January 2017

I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that it is disappointing that we have come to this stage in the Assembly? Obviously, we are where we are, and the Minister is still in post until 2 March. Does he agree that this review needs to be done as soon as possible to give those family members and victims confidence that the review will actually go forward?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I will leave it to the Minister to give us an update on the progress of whatever review she has instigated, but I agree with the point. There is a question of reassurance here for victims, survivors and bereaved family members, and I do not think that our history on this has been one of dealing with it well. We have to err on the side of caution but with proper safeguards. We will support the motion.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

I rise as a member of the Justice Committee to speak in the debate, and I thank Douglas Beattie and his colleagues for bringing the motion to the House. I am here to support the motion.

I was first elected to the Assembly in 2011, and, during this time, it has been a roller-coaster experience for me with the good, the bad and the ugly. Unfortunately, there have been too many times when it was been the bad and, at other times, the ugly. One of the most traumatic and saddest experiences that I experienced was visiting the home of Adrian Ismay, the prison officer who died after a cowardly booby-trap bomb attack last March — I think that it was 4 March. He died later of his injuries — I think it was on 15 March. It was claimed by the so-called Real IRA, and, as my colleague mentioned, the accused has broken bail conditions on five occasions.

There has been talk in the debate about human rights. I support human rights, but what about the human rights of the families who hear that someone who has been accused across the board in a number of incidents of murder or attempted murder has been dealt with leniently by the court in setting their bail conditions. There have been serious incidents linked mainly to dissident republicans during my time as a Member of the Assembly. Concerns have been raised across the community that bail is often granted despite police objections. The police have objected on a number of occasions.

Photo of Brenda Hale Brenda Hale DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member agree with me that those who operate outside the law and feel that they are above the law should feel the full force of the law?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I certainly agree with my colleague about the full rigour of the law. The Assembly should be tough on crime and tough on the reasons behind crime.

After the cowardly gun attack in north Belfast last weekend in which a community officer suffered gunshot wounds to his arm, the Chief Constable, George Hamilton, said:

"the criminal justice system needs to be linked up".

He raised the whole issue of bail policy and concerns; this is the Chief Constable, as well as us today. He went on to say:

"Our job is to gather the evidence, to present that evidence to the prosecutor for the prosecutor to take that through the courts and for the courts to decide on things like bail and sentencing and so on."

Certainly, in the midst of his comments, there is a frustration. That frustration has been there for many years, not just recently. I agree with the Chief Constable. My experience, during my time as an MLA, is that often the courts will go ahead and grant bail to people who have ended up in court on serious charges despite police objections. That happens even in my area of east Belfast.

Someone quoted Gandhi the other day — I think that it was Mike Nesbitt or somebody. I want to quote the Apostle Paul, who said:

"Abstain from all appearance of evil".

Avoid the appearance of wrongdoing. There is a sense out there that what is happening, over the last number of years, is wrong. The courts are too lenient and even the PPS is too lenient. William Humphrey said earlier that it undermines the criminal justice system. I agree with William.

In closing, I want to say that I have been here for five and a bit years and this is my last debate; I am stepping down from the Assembly. I want to thank the Justice Minister for being here. I want to thank you, Mr Speaker, and your officials. I also want to thank the cleaners, the Committee staff, the people in the canteen and the security men. I would like to see, in the future, a debate on how good the staff across the Assembly are. They do not get the recognition that they deserve.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

We, as a party, will be supporting the motion before the House today. I welcome this debate; it is very right and timely that it should happen. Damien McLaughlin is charged with aiding and abetting Mr Black's murder, having a car for use in terrorism, preparing a terrorist act and belonging to a proscribed organisation, namely the IRA. However, it seems that this is still not serious enough for him to be denied bail. I have spoken and lobbied vociferously on this issue and raised serious concerns in the past over persons charged with serious offences and their bail terms. The absconding defendant has been a sharp wake-up call to all agencies involved in the judicial system.

The Minister is aware that I have submitted a number of questions, perhaps more than any other MLA, on this particular issue. I have also written to the Chief Constable to ask the following questions: on what date was a bail breach first noted; why was a bench warrant not sought immediately when a bail breach was realised; what attempts were made to speak with the defendant's legal team to ascertain if they knew of his whereabouts; why was action not taken to have the matter made known to the first available court sitting, as opposed to waiting until the next scheduled court hearing pending trial; why was a statement not released earlier to the media and indeed at the first opportunity upon a bail breach being known and unsuccessful efforts made to locate the defendant; which agencies were advised of the position and on what dates; and, in addition, on what dates were ports, airports and the Garda Síochána alerted to this case. To date, I have received an acknowledgement, but I have received no details to any of those questions.

In reference to the list of court appearances, the defendant was first charged on 20 December 2012 — imagine, we are going back to 2012 when he was initially remanded in custody. Just think about the date: 20 December 2012. That is over four years ago, pushing on to the fifth year. The previous Minister contended that significant moves were under way towards speeding up justice, but that does not fit in this and many other cases that I have taken an interest in.

Due to the inordinate length of time the case was taking, by May 2014 McLaughlin had successfully applied for release at the High Court citing human rights legislation on the grounds that he had been held in custody for too long. The judge in question was required to consider bail favourably and, indeed, did so. On 18 December 2014, the defendant successfully applied for a trial variation. Three months later, on 30 March 2015, a further variation was granted. All in all, the judge clearly looked at the defendant's appearing to be conforming with bail terms, and each variation relaxed the very safeguards designed to protect the due process.

Then, it appears that carelessness set in, and compliance was exploited. None of us, including the victim's family, who are the most important people here and who have been treated absolutely shamefully, have been given any cogent explanation.

Two factors, in my view, contributed greatly to this. The first is the ridiculous length of time getting to trial, often delayed in part by the utilisation of preliminary investigations at the behest of the defence. This is not the first time I have raised those. They are something I have been lobbying long to be abolished as this is the only part of the United Kingdom I am aware of that continues to use them. The second factor is that bail under human rights legislation appears to be granted.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

There is not much regard given to the Black family's rights. Furthermore, when I challenged Sinn Féin on where it stood on the issue, what was its response?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

It said, "That is a police matter; we do not comment on those things". Not half, it does not.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

On this, the last day the Assembly will meet in this place, I thank my colleague Mr Doug Beattie for proposing this important motion. I express my deep concern and share the anger of many people from my constituency of Mid Ulster at the management of the bail conditions for the man who was charged with offences linked to the terrorist murder of my constituent prison officer David Black.

I was shocked to learn through media reports that the accused in this case has not been seen by the police since November. It is absolutely disgraceful that this man was allowed to disappear while on bail. Indeed, as we previously heard, this is a man who already made headlines when the authorities previously allowed him to attend a spa break in Fermanagh.

The facts of the case have been rehearsed. It emerged that, having failed to sign in with police on 18 November, it was not until 23 December when police called at his bail address that they found the flat had been cleared out, and, in fact, evidence suggested he had been gone a few weeks by that stage. The accused was supposed to check in at a police station five times a week, yet he had not been seen by police in seven weeks.

Over time, judges cut the number of days per week the accused had to sign in with the police from seven to five and ordered that his electronic tag be removed. It goes without saying that he must be returned to custody immediately. Unfortunately, those responsible for this inexcusable situation have demonstrated a total lack of respect towards the family of the late David Black.

I am regularly in contact with the Black family, and I know they feel, as Kyle Black said publicly:

"Let down, hurt and betrayed by the justice system."

My thoughts are with the Black family, who have been put into the public eye once again due to the failings of the judicial system, the very system in which David served so faithfully.

The appalling failings in this case have understandably caused much anger across mid-Ulster, an area that has suffered more than most at the hands of terrorism. Faith in the justice system has been damaged, particularly amongst victims.

Unfortunately, this case is not the only example of a man charged in connection with a terrorist murder being allowed to breach his bail conditions. Christopher Robinson, the man charged with the murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay, was granted bail in May 2016 but was subsequently rearrested a number of times for allegedly failing to comply with terms set by the court.

Again, that should not have been allowed to happen. Our thoughts must also be with the Ismay family because of the hurt that has been caused to them by those failures.

To allow this type of situation to occur once could be seen as being careless. For it to happen twice in the same year is clear evidence of a culture that needs to change and of a policy that needs to change. Bail is seemingly too easily given out and not stringently enough managed. There does not seem to be any understanding of the sensitivities of cases involving murder and terrorism. There needs to be a strong deterrent to breaching bail conditions. The public should not be put in danger as a result of the lax supervision of suspects. The rights of the accused appear to take precedence over the rights of the families of the victims in these cases. Of course, that causes people to question just whose side the justice system is on.

There is an argument that suspects have an entitlement to bail due to the length of time that they spend on remand. However, the answer to that must be to speed up the process of administering justice and not to grant bail in such cases. It is my firm belief that terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as is necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed.

I find myself astounded at the events that have been referred to today. Terrorist suspects and anyone who is involved in a murder case should not be granted bail unless there are exceptional circumstances. Recent events have had a very negative effect on trust and confidence in both the police and the criminal justice system. The system is not working and needs to be changed. I refer to today's 'News Letter' article about bail policy concern, in which the Chief Constable, in reference to the dissident threat —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker 12:45, 24 January 2017

The Member must conclude her remarks.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

Members will be able to read that for themselves. I join my colleagues in calling for the Justice Minister to reflect on the failings that have clearly been identified and to review policy urgently —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

— through a joined-up approach.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I support the motion on what is a very serious matter and one of concern out there for the public. It is one of those really burning issues in the community at present. People want to know why things have gone wrong and are broken.

I have been the Chairperson of the Committee for Justice since the election. I must say that I have learnt a lot in that time. Having previously been on the Committee, I feel that I have learnt more as Chair and from meeting more people in one-to-one situations. I have the utmost respect for the Justice Minister in that time, Claire Sugden, and also for the Lord Chief Justice, the judiciary, and all its organisations and functions. However, we are public representatives. We speak on behalf of the public. At present, this is a massive issue in our communities. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

I hear what Members have said. I do not believe that our debating the issue will damage in any way the criminal justice system or confidence in policing. It would do an injustice to those bodies if we did not debate a matter that is very topical out there. We have to try to fix this. As politicians, we surely have a role to play in trying to fix the system. It is not good enough to say that we should not talk about it because those people are independent of political interference. That is correct. It something that I will uphold as long as I am a politician, but we also set law in the House and ask the judiciary to implement that law. It is only right that we look at policies around bail. It is quite satisfactory that we do that. I am sure that the Lord Chief Justice would welcome that and any other investigation, inquiries or prospective laws that we bring to the House. That is our function.

I must say that it really annoys me when republicans and nationalists talk with forked tongue about moving on a journey, making it right and having maximum confidence in the police. They say all those good things to entice unionists into thinking that a united Ireland would be some sort of utopia — a great place in which to live — when we all realise that it would not.

Then, the very next day, they will stand side by side with hardliners with placards outside Knock HQ demanding the release of a prisoner. People who have been charged need to be very carefully managed. It is true to say that people are concerned about the low level of surety required for bail and the length of time taken for the PSNI to realise that someone has absconded.

The question I put to Sinn Féin is this: why have you been quiet on this issue? What if Mr McLaughlin has disappeared — "disappeared", does that not concern Sinn Féin? We have had a past history of disappearance. I am putting that out there.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

Does the Member agree with me that the issues debated today and yesterday are major issues that are going to be left to the side? There is an onus on all the MLAs who will be coming back here to sit down, crack a few heads and get this resolved. We are going into a black hole and I doubt whether we will ever come back again to the Assembly.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I agree with my colleague Sammy Douglas on that point. We are not coming back here any time soon. We have seen a massive sea change in the attitude and demeanour of Sinn Féin Members even in the last couple of weeks, even in the corridors and even in the canteen. We have seen it. We are not coming back here any time soon. Do you know something? I do not want to come back to a place where one party can walk away and hold the institutions of this country to ransom. We are not coming back to that. Let me tell you that now.

What happens when a terrorist absconds? They go on the run. Is it not sexy for a terrorist to be on the run? Throughout the years, have we not seen how folklore has developed when terrorists go on the run? I do not see anything sexy about lying in a cattle shed on a concrete slab or in the attic of a sympathiser's house. To me, that is not at all sexy; but it is how these people think. Then, in a couple of years' time, we will realise that they are in Colombia, America or Cork, and then they will be lauded in a public meeting in west Belfast or Dublin, and people will cheer and fists will be raised in pumps. I do not want to live in that sort of society.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Will the Member conclude his remarks?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

That is not the sort of society I want my children to live in. I ask Sinn Féin and the republican movement to wise up.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

Mr Frew has just referred to people campaigning with placards demanding the release of this one and that one. He characterised it as standing side by side with extremists. It is not standing side by side with extremists to call for the release of anybody — certainly not.

I hereby repeat my call for the release of Tony Taylor. Tony Taylor is a republican from Derry who was released under the Good Friday Agreement but was arrested again early last year. He is presently in Maghaberry prison. He was arrested because the then Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, signed a document saying that she believed that he was involved in activities which made it proper and acceptable to send him back to prison. When asked what these activities were — "I am not telling you."; "Who gave you to believe that he was involved in these activities?"; "The security services"; "Did they give you the information?"; "Yes, they did"; "Will you tell us?"; "No, we will not tell you".

What am I to say — what is anybody to say — to Lorraine Taylor, Tony Taylor's wife? She does not know how long he is going to be in as it is open-ended. Will it be a year, two years or three years? His wife and family have not been told why.

Mr Speaker, this cannot be right. It cannot be right that citizens are detained by the state without them, or anyone else, being given a reason why. Due process has to mean something. Let us look back to the occasion in our recent history, in the last half-century, when the denial of liberty to citizens without charge or trial resulted in a booster shot to violence in Northern Ireland such as we have had from no other particular incident.

I refer, of course, to internment in 1971. Occasionally, here and outside, we refer to the major atrocities that have taken place. I include, just for the sake of the record and in case anybody suggests I would think otherwise, Enniskillen, Teebane and the dreadful, unjustified and unjustifiable atrocity in Birmingham in December 1974, when innocent people were blown to bits. When we talk about atrocities visited on citizens, I am not being exclusive about it; I am saying that our horror at such things, our empathy with the grief of those left behind, must not spill over into saying that any measure is acceptable to deal with this sort of thing and stop it. Actually, it does not stop this sort of thing.

The main conclusion that we could draw from the introduction of internment without trial all those years ago is that it did not stop any deaths or terrorism, however you define it. On the contrary, it gave a boost to it. Think of the atrocities that I mentioned before. What I have in mind is Ballymurphy, which happened on 10 and 11 August 1971, in the immediate aftermath of internment. Think of Bloody Sunday. The Bloody Sunday march was a march against internment and for due process. People had placards saying, "We want somebody to be charged and tried before being put in jail. We cannot have it on the basis of a Government in Stormont, Westminster or anywhere else saying, 'We think this is a dangerous person and they should be put into prison'."

I am struck by the fact that none of those who have spoken in favour of this motion have even admitted that this might be a difficulty. When you say that those responsible, if they are caught, should not be given bail, how do you know that those are the people responsible if they have not been taken to court and the evidence produced against them? I am sorry that nobody supporting the motion has admitted that there is a grave difficulty involved, not from a left-wing or republican point of view, but simply from that of ordinary, common or garden justice. There is a problem here. We can argue about what the solution to the problem is, but it simply was not acknowledged. That says something ominous about the attitudes we have towards people —

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

The Member is concerned that the tone of the debate suggests that the justice system is balanced against one community. Does he agree that this ignores the reality that stop-and-search happens predominantly in what are perceived to be nationalist communities, particularly in north and west Belfast?

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

That certainly is the perception, and of course —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

Thank you very much. When there is such a perception, and it is based on material reality, that is a real problem for law and order in any society.

Yesterday, we voted for the motion in relation to the attempted killing on the Crumlin Road. We did that because we are against the strategy of "armed struggle", as republicans call it. We are not against it since the Good Friday Agreement; we say that it was always wrong and futile and was never going to deliver anything commensurate with the investment of pain — pain inflicted as well as endured. It was never going to deliver a return commensurate with that. We were against it from day one, and we are still against it. The remarks that I make today in standing up for civil liberties and —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member will conclude his remarks.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

— bail conditions do not associate me with armed struggle or anything else, but with the basic principles of justice.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Before Mr Jim Allister speaks, I have to inform him that he has four minutes.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

There patently is a systemic problem in the administration of bail, and I think that there are proper criticisms to be made arising from the case that most recently evidenced that problem, the McLaughlin case. However, we have to recognise where the source of this problem is. The source is the European Convention on Human Rights. Under article 5, the European convention creates a presumption in favour of bail. The prosecution has then to displace that presumption by proving that one of five matters is a good reason to deny bail — that is, that the accused may abscond, reoffend, interfere with witnesses etc. It is that tilting of the balance in favour of the person accused and against the police that has created the situation that has evolved. Our judges have to work with that.

I have a criticism of our judges. Judges in Northern Ireland are more timid and more generous in their attitude to the European Convention and, therefore, more generous in their granting of bail, I perceive, when contrasted with those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Justice Minister could do a useful piece of work by having a study conducted to compare and contrast the attitude to bail, which operates under the same European Convention, in Northern Ireland as opposed to GB. The journalist Ben Lowry has done some good, insightful work on this that indicates that there is a problem. The Justice Minister could have a good piece of work done on that.

We have to go to the source to recognise that, not for the first time, the European Convention on Human Rights has got its balance wrong. If the United Kingdom Government reviewed the Human Rights Act, that would be one fruitful area in which they could and should review its operation.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I am told that I have no extra time, so, not on this occasion. Sorry about that.

Yes, we need to scrutinise carefully what our judges are doing, as I think that they are too generous in their interpretation. We also have to ensure that when bail is granted it is properly policed. One of the most scandalous things about the subject case is the indifferent attitude to the policing of that bail and how that person was able to be out of the jurisdiction, we presume, for a month before anyone realised. What was the point in asking him to sign, five days a week, if no one was following up on the fact that he had not signed? That is a scandalous dereliction of duty.

The other contributor to too much free bail —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— is the delays in criminal trials, which accentuate the burden on the judiciary to give bail.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I welcome today's motion and debate. I thank the Ulster Unionist Party for bringing it to the House. Generally, I understand, appreciate and, certainly, sympathise with the ethos of the debate, but there are a number of aspects that make it difficult for me to support it. That said, coming from the premise of the victims, which is something that I have always championed as Justice Minister, I am sympathetic to the motion.

The motion is concerned with bail issues, which is an important aspect of the justice system, but it is also important that the Assembly send crystal-clear messages to our justice family and to the community that it serves. Whilst this might seem out of context, Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to allow me to reiterate some of the points that I made yesterday. Spraying a garage forecourt with automatic fire is sickening; shooting at young officers in a public place is nothing short of repulsive; putting the public at risk, and a community in fear, is not in the furtherance of a political cause — it is an act of wanton aggression.

I want to send two very clear messages to our justice colleagues and to our community. To our justice colleagues, I say this: we support you in your work; we welcome what you do to keep us safe, and we are grateful and indebted. To our police officers who are keeping people safe, to our prison officers who are working hard to rehabilitate offenders, and to our probation officers, court staff and everyone in the justice sector I say this: thank you. The Assembly, I hope, wants you to know that you have our support. To the officer injured on Sunday night, to his colleague who was with him, to the first responders and to the officers investigating this crime, again, we send our heartfelt best wishes and, indeed, thanks for the work that you do to protect our community from harm.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

Minister, you alluded to north Belfast. Have you looked at the statements by the Chief Constable, who has questioned the linkages that may be undermining the whole criminal justice system in situations like that?

Also, I want to pay tribute to you. I think that you have been a great Minister. You have had all this dumped on your young shoulders, and I think that you have done an excellent job. Thank you very much.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his intervention and his kind wishes; he is going to have me welling up.

I have very much acknowledged what the Chief Constable has said about the events that happened in north Belfast on Sunday. I have never shied away from the fact that the criminal justice system needs to be looked at. We need to revaluate what we need to do to better serve the public in Northern Ireland. I will get on to some of the areas that I, as Justice Minister, was keen to try to progress, albeit I have been limited in the time that I have, but we can see what happens in the next mandate. Certainly, I appreciate the Member's comments.

I just want to tie up my comments about Sunday. I thank the community as well for the support that it expressed for the officer, his family and his colleagues. We need to send out a united message in the Assembly and across Northern Ireland that we reject those who want to take us back to the past. They need to realise that it is over. It is over, and no one wants the activity that they are trying to bring forward. I am sickened not only by the injuries inflicted on the officer but by what might have happened in a public place, with citizens going about their business, in a garage, on a main road. It is beyond any rational explanation. There is no possible logical narrative that justifies what happened on Sunday night.

I will return to the detail of the motion because it raises some important issues that absolutely resonate with the current situation and what has happened in the past couple of days, which is why I saw fit to relay my concerns about that. The motion has been tabled following the disappearance of an individual who was on bail and was charged with a serious offence. The public is concerned about the case, and rightly so. The Assembly is concerned and so am I as Justice Minister. I have therefore written to the Lord Chief Justice, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chief Constable about the issue.

As I said, we are right to be concerned. This case is connected to the murder of prison officer David Black, a public servant murdered in the line of duty. His family, friends and community have lost their loved one; the Prison Service has lost a colleague. I welcome the fact that today's debate has given us an opportunity to extend again our heartfelt sympathies to the family of David Black not only for their loss but for the ongoing hurt that they feel and, indeed, for the hurt that they will feel because we are debating this and talking about their loved one today.

The only person charged in connection with David Black's dreadful murder can now not be found. He was due to be tried in accordance with his rights, but, as of today, the justice system cannot produce him for trial. There are reviews under way. The PSNI and the Police Ombudsman are looking into the issues, and I welcome that because that is, indeed, necessary.

There will, I am sure, be lessons to be learned — I almost hate using that phrase because I think that we need more than that. There are broader issues for the justice system to reflect on, too. It is entirely right to ask whether it is focusing on delivering for victims and, indeed, defendants, communities and citizens. It is legitimate to reflect on whether it has the right structures and priorities and a meaningful connection with the people whom it serves, and I was, indeed, giving that much thought.

I had already announced a review of the courts, which I referred to as Courts 2020. I had made progress on areas of responsibility under the Executive's Fresh Start action plan, and I had made tackling domestic violence and abuse my top priority. This motion focuses on bail, however, and it is my strong view that improvement to the operation of the bail system cannot be made without wider systemic improvements to the criminal justice system as a whole. That is why my Department's work under the speeding up justice programme, which touches on bail-related issues, is so vital.

Speeding up justice is delivered alongside justice partners. It incorporates legislative reform, as well as operational improvements consisting of administrative and procedural reforms. Those reforms are crucial, and the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 is integral to delivering them across a number of priority areas to help speed up justice. We are now, thankfully, finalising plans to implement those major provisions.

Changes initiated by the introduction of sections 88 and 93 of the Act, which deal with early guilty pleas and PPS summons respectively, have already come into operation and have been effective since 1 April 2016. The PPS summons changes, in particular, will help to streamline procedures and reduce the time taken to issue and serve summonses, contributing to the overall measure to speed up justice.

Work is also ongoing to finalise regulations to enable the provisions on statutory case management, with implementation scheduled to be in place by September 2017. The regulations will impose duties on the prosecution, the defence and the court in the management of criminal cases with a view to ensuring that cases are progressed in the most effective way possible, whilst maintaining a focus on the paramount need to secure justice. Subsequent regulations will impose a general duty on anyone involved in criminal proceedings to reach a just outcome as swiftly as possible. This approach couples a statutory change in working practice with a requirement to work towards speedy and just outcomes. I believe that this will have a positive impact on the whole justice system including bail, which can be affected by case delays.

In my programme since becoming Justice Minister, I had a focus on people: on women and on young people in the justice system; on the harm and vulnerabilities that we see in the justice system, whether that be offenders, victims, or indeed justice practitioners; on mental health issues; on older people and their fear of crime; and on those who live in our rural communities. This has been my focus, and I had planned to speak in more detail about these issues today. I had started to think about the performance of the overall system in the context of today’s citizens’ expectations. I had started to think about confidence and about harnessing the invaluable efforts that are made by all those who work so hard in law enforcement and in the justice system every day. I wanted to make a deeper connection with the problems faced by citizens through the Programme for Government, and I wanted to start a process whereby outcomes and confidence would be central and valued above processes, practices and structures through my problem-solving justice initiatives, but these are issues, regrettably, for another day.

I would also like to say something for the record about the bail regime and it is important to outline how it currently works. It is, indeed, as Mr Allister described it. The operation of the bail framework is underpinned primarily by article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights — the right to liberty and security. Article 5 requires that a person charged with an offence must be released pending trial unless there are relevant and sufficient reasons to justify continued detention. The starting point for all pretrial remand decisions is the presumption of innocence. This is a fundamental tenet of and protection in the law and it is consistent with the principle of the right to a fair trial.

Bail can only be refused if one or more of five broad conditions have been met. I am quite happy to outline these conditions. They include the risk that the accused will fail to appear for trial if they are released on bail; that the accused will interfere with the course of justice while on bail; that they will commit further offences while on bail; that they would be at risk of harm against which they would be inadequately protected if released on bail; or that they pose a risk to the preservation of public order if the accused is released on bail. Mr Allister is entirely right that one of those five conditions has to be satisfied in order to refuse bail — that would be at the time of their first being granted bail or not. The grounds for refusal do not include that the accused has been charged with a serious offence, although, naturally, the seriousness of the offence may be a factor in determining whether one of the five grounds for refusing bail exists.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Is one of the concerns in the implementation of that regime that it appears, as time goes on and someone is longer in custody, that the courts become easier satisfied on the granting of bail? They may have refused it on the basis that the person might interfere with witnesses or not turn up, and then suddenly, a year down the line, they release that very person whom, hitherto, they had made those findings against because they had been longer in custody. Is it not a concern that it seems to dilute the requirements as time goes on?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his intervention. I am concerned that the longer people are in custody, the more difficult it is to satisfy certain conditions. Indeed, there are issues around remand, which Mr McCann alluded to. Essentially, we need to speed up justice, but we also have to look at how bail conditions are applied. I am quite happy to take up Mr Allister's suggestion of doing a comparative model to see whether there are differences between what is happening in Northern Ireland and what is happening in GB.

I have been clear that it is not my role as Justice Minister to comment on the availability or conditions of bail in the specific case that has prompted this debate. These are, essentially, matters for the courts. Every application for bail is unique and depends on the relevant factors relating to the individual circumstances of the offence and of the accused.

That is why it is right that it is for the independent and impartial judiciary to make decisions on the granting of bail.

I do, however, recognise that there is a perception that bail may be more readily available in Northern Ireland than in other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, which is why I am quite happy to take forward Mr Allister's suggestion on doing a comparative model so that we can be fully informed should this issue be raised in the next Assembly. The panel recommended a review to determine the facts and, if required, bring forward measures to improve the situation. As I said to the Assembly before, that review is under way. It will establish facts about bail decisions in Northern Ireland. It is an important review. I do not want to speculate on or pre-empt its outcome, but I hope we will find a conclusion to it in the coming weeks. It is vital that Northern Ireland has an effective framework for bail that appropriately balances the needs of defendants, victims and the wider public. I have asked my officials to do all they can to complete this work as soon as possible, as I said, in the coming weeks. Where concerns or areas for improvement are identified, a second phase of work will be taken forward to address them.

As I said, I welcome today's debate on the substantive issues raised in the motion, but I also recognise and welcome that the Assembly has been concerned with other matters too. We are concerned about our justice colleagues and the community they serve. That is the vital message we should send out. When the next Assembly resumes — hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later — I encourage all Members to focus on the issues that matter to people on the ground. This motion has captured the interest of the public because it concerns their safety and the safety of their loved ones. I think that is what we should be putting our focus on today, so it has been my pleasure to respond to the debate.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 1:15, 24 January 2017

There is widespread concern about our criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, the bail conditions and some of the sentences that have been given to those who have been involved in violent and terrorist activity. It is important that everybody appreciates that because, if we are to retain public confidence in our justice system, they must have a feeling that it is fair, proportionate and doing everything reasonable to protect them. Whether it is violent dissident republicans or the south-east Antrim UDA, which is involved in a feud within my constituency, we need the same standards of justice to be delivered to everybody. We are not asking it to be picked out for one group or another, but the public need to be protected.

The Fresh Start Agreement set up a three-person panel to report on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. That panel produced a report dated May 2016, some seven months ago. There are two relevant paragraphs within it I want to highlight, as they have not been mentioned to date. Paragraph 4.19 states:

"the Department of Justice, the Courts Service and the Public Prosecution Service should implement the case management improvements throughout Northern Ireland, particularly in respect of those offences linked to terrorism or organised crime groups (Recommendation A12)."

That is an issue that has been mentioned by my colleague Sandra Overend and by Lord Morrow, Trevor Lunn and even the Minister, but what has been the progress on it?

There is another paragraph relevant to bail conditions. Paragraph 4.52 advises:

"The UK Government, the Executive and law enforcement agencies, working with their partners in Ireland, should ensure that tackling organised criminal activity is an integral part of their efforts to deal with Northern Ireland related terrorism".

We need to ensure we are working consistently.

I acknowledge that some of the issues have been highlighted, but it appears we are going forward very, very slowly. I know the wheels of justice can be slow, but the wheels of the review of justice seem to be even slower. Because of that and my disappointment at the lack of progress, I put down a number of Assembly questions for written answer. I have to say that the answers, which came in just this month, were even more disappointing. When I asked the Minister what meetings have been held in connection with when to offer bail or give guidance, she advised:

"I have not had meetings about offering bail or guidance for setting bail conditions in specific cases."

I was not asking about specific cases; I was just asking for general conditions. We were also advised:

"A workshop is arranged for 15 February 2017."

Remember, however, that the report came out in May 2016. We are moving far too slowly.

I also asked a question about differences in bail conditions, which is another issue that Members highlighted in the debate. The Minister's response states:

"Bail law in Northern Ireland is a mix of common law and statute, whilst other jurisdictions have in place consolidated bail legislation."

Northern Ireland therefore lacks a single bail Act. The Minister's response also states:

"England and Wales however, have a reverse presumption, that is that bail will ordinarily not be granted in some where a defendant has been charged with an offence of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, rape or a serious sexual offence, if he or she has a previous conviction for the same offence; or where a defendant has been charged with an indictable offence".

We all seem to be operating under the European Court. However, the legislation deemed to be satisfying it in England and Wales deals severely with those involved in violence in order to try to protect the public — not so in Northern Ireland. We need that to change.

I turn now to the comments of Members who addressed today's debate. I thank Doug Beattie for tabling the motion. He pointed out that terrorism continues and that we need to be consistent in our message that we are against it. He highlighted the case of David Black, which was very poignant, given the violent attack on police officers in north Belfast just this week. We need to think about how we deal with those who, hopefully, will be charged with that murder and brought to court through the criminal justice system. Will we treat that case with the seriousness that it deserves? I agree with the Member that we need to question why bail is given in such situations. Where bail is given, there is a clear need for very strict bail conditions and for them to be rigorously implemented.

Doug Beattie contrasted the offer of bail conditions to someone accused of the murder of prison officer David Black with not allowing a 75-year-old veteran to vary his bail conditions to go on holiday. You would not think that there was a high risk of a 75-year-old veteran absconding to another jurisdiction. The public are concerned at the inconsistency in our criminal justice system, and a single bail Act might help the situation.

In connection with the same case, a major review of the role of the police was needed. I welcome the fact that it has happened, and we will wish to hear a more definite outcome, to ensure that, when someone breaches his bail conditions on 18 November, it will not take until 23 December for that to be spotted. If someone is required to sign in at a police station and fails to do so, on that same day, it should be reported as a breach of a bail condition.

Keith Buchanan highlighted the case of someone charged in connection with the murder of Adrian Ismay. He breached his bail conditions five times before bail was revoked.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I am sure that everybody will agree that the signatories to the 1998 agreement brought forward an amazingly inclusive political process, and, 19 years on, the attempted murder of police officers this week proves that there are those who will never accept inclusion and choose to exclude themselves. I hope that the Member will agree that that proves that the public deserve maximum protection. They demand actions, not words, that ensure that we give primacy to the human right to life, above those who try to deny it. If that means tightening up bail, so be it. It was the choice of those who committed the criminal acts.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention, which moves me on nicely to the next contributor to the debate, Declan Kearney. He said that you could not tighten up bail conditions because of the Human Rights Act. Let us remember that human rights are balanced: rights and responsibilities. We must protect the rights of the ordinary citizens who will be exposed to risks from the release of those accused of being involved in terrorist activities, particularly if they are released on very flimsy bail conditions that they ignore.

Alex Attwood visited the family of prison officer Black and shared his sympathy with them. He highlighted the fact that damage is being done to the criminal justice system but pointed out that it has to be balanced.

Trevor Lunn indicated his support for the motion, for which I thank him. He also highlighted the excessively long time that it is taking to bring this case to court, which is a valid concern. Our Court Service and our justice system must get that sorted out, because it may have contributed to this case. As I said, this was highlighted in May last year, and what has happened? Very little, it would appear. We need to move forward and make sure that we do not get into a situation where those accused of serious offences are granted bail.

Lord Morrow highlighted the unusually long time taken before cases come forward, which, again, is very valid.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

Will the Member please draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank my colleague Sandra Overend for sharing the concerns of the Black family and her constituents at the release and how that has brought the case to the fore again. I also thank Members whom I have not managed to mention for their contributions.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 51; Noes 33


Mr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Ms Armstrong, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Ms P Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr K Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKee, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Smith, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Beattie, Mrs Overend


Mr Agnew, Ms Archibald, Mr Attwood, Ms Bailey, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr Carroll, Ms Dillon, Mr Durkan, Ms Fearon, Ms Flynn, Ms Gildernew, Ms Hanna, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr E McCann, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McMullan, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Seeley

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Kearney, Mr McAleer

The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Ms Sugden

Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the recent failures in the criminal justice system to ensure that a man suspected of involvement in the murder of prison officer David Black abided by bail conditions; expresses concern at the granting of bail in this case, the low level of sureties required and the length of time taken by the PSNI to realise that this individual had absconded; believes that terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed; calls on the Minister of Justice to ensure that steps are taken to see that the suspect is returned to custody; and further calls on the Minister of Justice to take urgent steps to review bail policy in Northern Ireland, with particular regard to cases involving murder and terrorism.