By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Judges sometimes forget they are the servants of society. They operate courts which exist because the state has established them to provide justice for members of society. Sometimes those courts fail to provide that justice. Usually that failure is in the cases of paedophilia or rape where people are dismayed at sentences that do not reflect the enormity of the crime.
In recent years such has been the dissatisfaction with sentences that governments both in Britain and the Republic have stepped in to find ways to ensure sentencing reflects the public’s revulsion at the crime. Occasionally, the attorney-general steps in to have the sentence increased.
Last week there was an example of very disturbing sentencing in a collusion case which in no way reflected the outrage and sense of betrayal felt in the nationalist community at the crime of collusion which has led to the deaths of scores of innocent Catholics over the last 40 years.
Two loyalists, Aaron Hill and Darren Richardson, both pleaded guilty to collecting information which would be of use to terrorists. Hill was given a suspended term while Richardson was sentenced to the equivalent of time served on remand.
Consequently, they both walked free from court, in Richardson’s case despite the fact that he is a thug who already has a previous conviction for causing actual bodily harm. We also know that Richardson would have been charged with membership of the UVF if the law had not been changed. We are told that “a police superintendent was more than happy to connect him with the UVF”.
Admittedly none of that evidence was before the court and could not be taken into account but collecting information is not an act complete in itself.
Yes, they were found guilty and now both have criminal records. Yes, so far their activities have not resulted in any harm being done to any of the 117 people whose details they had snitched.
Nevertheless Mr Justice McLaughlin’s remarks to Hill, that he was guilty of “a serious breach of trust” and that the court needs “to deter this kind of behaviour”, were exceptionally weak and do not in any way reflect the seriousness of the crime of collusion in this society. Certainly the idea that a 12-month suspended sentence is a deterrent to others is laughable.
Mr Justice McLaughlin is not averse to heavy sentences. He handed down the first whole-life tariff in the history of the north to the killer of Attracta Harron. In December 2008 he sentenced the killer of a 66-year-old pensioner to a minimum of 25 years.
Now, while there is no comparison between those cases and the case last week, in the two murder cases the judge accurately conveyed society’s horror at the nature of the crime. In the case of the Randalstown loyalists he got it wrong.
The case goes to the heart of confidence in policing and the administration of justice. Loyalist murder gangs still have access to supplies of automatic weapons, the number of which is known only to the British intelligence services who facilitated their shipment to the north.
Loyalists have no intention of decommissioning them.
We know that for decades the key source of information given to loyalist murder gangs about Catholic targets came from inside the RUC and UDR and that both Special Branch and British military intelligence and MI5 ran loyalist killers. Most of that widespread and systematic state killing conspiracy was supposed to have come to an end with the Patten reforms and the dismantling of RUC Special Branch. Unfortunately no-one knows what MI5 is still up to.
Instead, last week’s case demonstrated that as late as December 2006 loyalists still had access to information from within the police service.
We do not know how many other instances there are or what else Hill and Richardson were up to or how many others are involved. Nationalists have a right to be satisfied that when such activity does come before the courts it is treated with the seriousness which 40 years of state conspiracy to murder requires.
There were too many nationalist victims to act otherwise.
What last week’s case demanded was deterrent custodial sentences and not someone jauntily walking free making contemptuous gestures to cameramen.