Bail scandal: After PSNI ignore News Letter, top detective gives first interview to BBC

For one week the News Letter has shown by far the greatest interest in the disappearance of an alleged terrorist plotter while he was out on bail, yet the PSNI refused to speak about it.

Friday, 13th January 2017, 3:36 am
Updated Friday, 13th January 2017, 3:42 am
DCS Murray, pictured in 2011, gave his BBC interview, yet it was the News Letter that led the way in trying to shed light on the scandal

While the BBC demonstrated a fraction of our interest in the scandal of Damien Patrick McLaughlin going missing, we persisted in our queries (see full list of links to our coverage below).

On Sunday we gave the police all day to answer numerous questions we had about the affair.

The PSNI said that they could not speak about a named individual, the same useless line they issued on Friday when news of the extraordinary episode first emerged.

On Monday, after further pressure from us, the police finally issued a statement.

But on Thursday, when the police gave an interview with a senior detective, they did so to the BBC - having in the meantime complained to the News Letter editor about our persistent questioning.

The unprecedented scandal had been the News Letter front page lead story three times in a week.

In his BBC interview, Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray acknowledged that the PSNI’s handling of the issue had been “embarrassing” for the force.

He was speaking on Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster show, during which he said “things had not gone well for police”.

McLaughlin is accused of terror-related offences including helping to murder prison officer David Black. He denies the charges.

In the wake of his disappearance, there has been renewed criticism of the decision by the courts to grant bail to terrorism suspects, and of the conditions of that bail.

DCS Murray said: “In terms of the ability of police to keep track of offenders according to bail conditions it can be very, very difficult. So, if people are signing on a number of days a week and there are gaps between those days it provides opportunities for those people to abscond.

“If they’re wearing tags and tags are removed, it provides opportunities for people to abscond.

“But those are not decision for the police; those are decisions for the courts.”

Since 2014, judges had cut the number of days per week McLaughlin had to sign from seven to five, and ordered that his electronic tag be removed.

DCS Murray said the police were going to review their own “processes” around bail, adding: “And I would urge that perhaps all sections of the criminal justice system take this opportunity to reflect.”

McLaughlin was required to present himself for bail at a police station five times a week, but was last seen on November 18.

When police searched his bail address on December 23 they found it had been essentially cleared out. His trial is to begin on February 20.

Nonetheless, the News Letter discovered police waited until after the Christmas / New Year break before contacting PPS lawyers.

Upon being told on January 3 what had happened, the PPS arranged a court hearing to revoke his bail.

It was only at this hearing in Belfast Crown Court last Friday that the whole fiasco became public – exactly seven weeks after he was seen.

For days, the News Letter’s efforts to find out what went wrong were met with a bland statement from police which refused to elaborate, for some reason claiming that they could not say more than they had said in court last Friday.

They then proved that they could have said much more, first by issuing a statement on Monday night which said they were trying to find McLaughlin, but added “we are limited in what we can comment on publicly”, but then saying more as the week went on, finally giving the DCS Murray to the BBC on Thursday.