A few days ago I read a statement from Stormont Justice committee member, Raymond McCartney and MLA Jennifer McCann in relation to the treatment of Republican prisoners in Maghaberry. Whilst I have no doubt their concern is genuine the more cynical side of me questions the timing of the statement given the issues outlined have been ongoing for some time. This statement came just hours before the British Secretary of State announced that the protection letters issued to hundreds of Republicans through the 'On the Runs' scheme are to be rescinded with their contents now considered null and void due to alleged"errors" that were made at the time.
The main issue raised in the statement from Sinn Fein is the continued use of forced isolation. Indeed Gavin Coyle who has been held in isolation since April 2011 is but one example. Furthermore Gavin Coyle is said to be subject to what appears to be arbitrary interrogation with an open door policy available to British Security services who are said to have tried on numerous occasions to recruit Coyle as an informer. These security services are not accountable to the Northern Ireland Justice Department as they fall under the remit of the Northern Ireland Office which was set up under direct British Rule in 1972.
The role of the Northern Ireland Office is to oversee issues of national security, whilst they are further responsible for electoral, human rights and equality legislation. This places our political leaders in a bit of a conundrum as they have a duty to ensure that the treatment of prisoners complies with Human Rights Legislation which in some cases it clearly does not. Forced isolation amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment and is therefore in breach of article three of the European Convention on Human Rights. Another major impediment in Maghaberry has been the failure to replace degrading forced strip searches, with security scanning equipment similar to that used in airports, as agreed in August 2010.
Following the announcement that the British government had reneged on the 'On The Runs' Scheme the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton announced cuts of over £80 million to the PSNI budget. This came with the news of how less resources will used to investigate past and legacy cases. A reduction in resources to deal with the past could lead to the possible scaling back or abolishment of the HET.
It is said that this announcement will also impact on investigations into the Bloody Sunday Massacre. It would seem that the main thrust of the statement from George Hamilton to the Policing Board was directed towards cases that could be considered 'troubles' related. What needs to be asked is will cases of a historical nature with no connection to the troubles still be investigated? Who will decide which cases are to be investigated, who measures the importance of these cases and who decides what is and what is not in the public interest?
Another item which featured in the news last week was on how three people, including a former police officer and his wife will no longer face trial on charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, in connection to the murder of Robert Hamill. Robert Hamill who was 25 years old died after being beaten by loyalists in Portadown in1997. The judge in the case described the witness in the case as being "evasive, obstructive and untruthful" and further said that she was "an entirely unreliable and utterly unconvincing witness" who had seasoned her testimony with"inconsistencies and outlandish assertions.” The witness did not attend court on the day to provide evidence, firstly claiming her child was ill and then later alleging that she had received a letter warning her not to give evidence. I wonder if this case will feature on the PSNI priority list when choosing which past cases will warrant investigation.
When reading the judgement on the case I couldn't help but reflect on the case of the Craigavon Two whose conviction is secured on the testimony of short sighted Walter Mitty. This witness, described by his own family member as a Walter Mitty contacted the police whilst heavily intoxicated 11 months after the murder. The eye witness testimony from this witness known as witness 'M' is said to be a medical impossibility, he is also said to have lied continually under oath with his partner from the time refusing to confirm his version of events to be true. Furthermore this witness is said to have gained financially from providing evidence which he did with his identity protected in court.
When you compare both cases you can't help but see the disparity and begin to wonder if there is any consistency in the application of justice, the powers that be would argue that the each case is considered on it's merits and the evidence available and without political interference.
Last week a senior judge said comments by Health Minister Edwin Poots were detrimental to the rule of law and damaging to public confidence in the justice system. Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan outlined his concerns in a letter to Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson eight months ago and has received no response.