Under the radar
Under the radar

By Anne Cadwallader (for Daily Ireland)

The drama at Westminster on the 90-day detention-without-charge proposal last week took place in the full glare of publicity with the 24-hour news channels carrying the debate live.

Unnoticed, meanwhile, at Court Ten, Laganside Courthouse in Belfast, a not-unrelated little drama of its own was quietly unfolding. There were no television cameras, only a few policemen, lawyers and reporters to watch.

You will not have read this story before. It wasn’t considered newsworthy enough to feature in anywhere else. I leave you to judge whether it merited more attention.

The main dramatis personae were as follows: Resident Magistrate Ken Nixon on the bench, defendant Peter Kelly in the dock, defence solicitor Niall Murphy and Detective Inspector Ian Monteith of the PSNI’s serious crime squad facing each other across the courtroom.

Kelly, a BT engineer from Newry, was before the court on charges of possessing, collecting or making a document or record of information likely to be of use to terrorists. Monteith, who had charged Kelly at Antrim police station, said the defendant had replied that he “refuted and denied these hysterical, paranoid charges”..

The defendant had, said Monteith, asserted that he had only been doing the job he was paid to do by BT and added: “I would not be charged with these offences if I was a unionist.”

Probably not the smartest of ripostes if you’re about to appear before a court in the North, but anyhow...

Monteith went on to outline, at the prosecution lawyer’s solicitation, some juicy morsels about the alleged police evidence against Kelly. This included that he had in his possession computer records on 36,000 members of the civil service, 3,300 civilian workers for the PSNI and 70 workers in the prison service.

At the crown lawyer’s kind prompting, Monteith went on to say this made the individuals involved “vulnerable to approaches and potential threats.”

All this, of course, has echoes of the “Stormont-gate” affair, which irretrievably collapsed the power-sharing executive and assembly at Parliament Buildings, leading on inexorably to the DUP’s eclipse of the Ulster Unionists, thence on to the political stagnation in which we continue to find ourselves.

All this despite the fact that the main charges against the four defendants in the affair, specifically the critical claim that they had been involved in “spying” on the Ulster Unionists and the British government, have been dropped.

In Court Ten this week, after the prosecution had put its case, the defence had its go in the shape of Murphy, a solicitor with Kevin Winters & Co, who did not mince his words.

Monteith’s contention that he could link Kelly to the charges was, he said, “a misleading, false lie.” Sharp intake of breath in Court Ten.

Without going into minute detail, this is what Murphy’s case amounted to. Firstly, it was - correctly - reported that Peter Kelly had been “arrested by police investigating the Northern Bank raid”. In the public mind, therefore, he will indelibly be linked to that robbery, although neither the charges nor the evidence to date bears any relevance to it.

Having spent six full days in custody, at 13.55 hours on November 8, the police (with insufficient evidence to sustain charges) applied for a three-day extension of his detention.

Suspects, even in high profile cases like this, are rarely if ever held for more than seven days. If the application had succeeded, Kelly would have been held for nine.

Kelly’s lawyers decided to seek a judicial review of this application. A judge was sent for and a court hearing fixed for 5pm that afternoon. The police, says Murphy, got wind of this and at 5.03pm his client, Kelly, was suddenly charged. Thus, the judicial review and court hearing were, at a stroke, made redundant.

But, asked Murphy, if the police were intent on asking a court at 1.55pm for more time “to obtain evidence” and had been given no new information in the meantime, how could they have had confidence a mere three hours later that they could connect Kelly to the very serious charges?

Either there was sufficient evidence at 1.55pm (in which case why seek an extension of Kelly’s detention?) or the extension order - if granted - would have been an abuse of process.

The defence submission (that the court should reject Monteith’s claim that he could connect Kelly to the charges) failed. Murphy, however, had one more card up his sleeve.

It was ironic, he said, that on the very day that the British parliament was debating a proposal to extend police powers to hold suspects without charge for up to 90 days, this process was taking place in Belfast.

It showed, he said, how the best intentions of parliament could be undermined by “over-zealous police officers”. Nixon quickly rejected this as a “political” argument and Kelly was promptly taken from the dock down to the cells.

Outside the court, Murphy told reporters he was persuaded that the police had got wind of his intention to submit a judicial review. They could, he suggests, have somehow (inadvertently of course) overheard him relaying this during a phone conversation in Antrim police station. These things happen...

Proceedings in Court Ten were a culmination of “a Khafka-esque farce”, said Murphy, recalling one consultation with his client when, in a small closed room at Antrim Interrogation Centre, they had been out-numbered by up to eight senior policemen.

At the police application for the two days extension, Kelly’s lawyer - and Kelly himself - were excluded from proceedings for 35 minutes while the police relayed “sensitive” information to a judge by video-link.

The legal provision under which he was excluded, says Murphy, was a personal slur on him and on the legal profession.

Anyhow, he contends the police had insufficient evidence to charge his client. They feared what might transpire during a judicial review. So they charged him anyway. “Oh, what the heck. Might as well.”

If you were a cynic, with the first anniversary of the Northern Bank robbery coming round, you might almost be forgiven for imagining that the police want to have a few people banged up facing charges.

Almost, of course, but not quite, because police officers in the North don’t stoop to such ignominious tactics.

Tony Blair’s 90-day proposal this week included the safeguard of regular court hearings to safeguard detainees’ human rights. What took place in Court Ten this week gives me little confidence such a guarantee would be any bulwark against abuse.

Meanwhile, Kelly - as we speak - languishes, a reluctant guest of Her Majesty at Maghaberry, to re-appear in court by video-link on November 16.

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