Security “alarm bells” should have rung over the appearance of a Royal Marine in a Sinn Fein propaganda publication in the years before he joined the UK Armed Forces.
Ciaran Maxwell pleaded guilty last week to offences arising from the discovery of large quantities of munitions, found in woodland close to his home town of Larne and understood to have been intended for some kind of dissident republican purpose.
As widely reported when he was first named as a suspect in court last year, there is a record of him having appeared as an interviewee in An Phoblacht, a Sinn Fein-connected newsletter, back in 2002 when he was 16.
The publication said Maxwell (whose Christian name was given at the time as Kieran, not Ciaran) had recounted being beaten by a loyalist gang in the town.
The article, complete with picture of Maxwell’s injuries, went on to claim that “the UDA roam the town in gangs hunting for Catholics, while the RUC/PSNI look on”.
Last year, The Larne Times quoted an unnamed family friend as saying that Maxwell was the product of one Catholic parent and one Protestant one, and that he had been targeted by the UDA.
Roy Beggs, who was UUP MLA for the East Antrim area from which Maxwell hailed until the recent election was called, told the News Letter: “Sadly, he had suffered an attack at that time. But if everyone who’d suffered injury decided to seek vengeance, we’d have ongoing conflict, and therefore there is no excuse for his actions.
“Clearly closer scrutiny is needed, I’d say, of any illegal paramilitary links...
“Certainly if he’d been showing his allegiance by highlighting his injuries, that’d be an area of concern; that he was trying to use his injuries for political purposes, which should have highlighted concerns.
“Alarm bells should’ve been ringing when he was highlighting his injuries for political purposes.”
Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for the East Antrim, likewise said that despite the reports of a sectarian attack against Maxwell, there is “no excuse” for his later “murderous activities”.
Maxwell is now 31 and had an address near Exminster in Devon. He pleaded guilty to a trio of offences at London’s Old Bailey last Friday: cannabis possession, fraud, and preparation of terrorist acts.
This last offence carries a potential life sentence under the wording of Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006.
In 2014, four people pleaded guilty to the same offence in Northern Ireland, plus other serious terrorist offences, in a major case involving guns and a terrorist training ground set up in woodland in Co Tyrone.
Sentences for these four convicts ranged from just under three years in prison to an indeterminate jail term with a minimum sentence of five years in jail (see facing page for full details of their crimes).
As of yesterday morning, a date for Maxwell’s sentencing had not yet been set.
The News Letter has repeatedly carried reports in recent weeks of light sentences (sometimes involving no jail time at all) handed down for dissident activity in bomb and gun-related cases.
Two interviewees expressed the view that such punishments would have been much harsher if handed down on the UK mainland.
Mr Wilson told the News Letter: “I think that this will be a good test actually.
“Here is a case of somebody who is involved in dissident republican activity, will not be sentenced in a Northern Ireland court, will be sentenced in a court in England, and it will be very interesting to see whether there is any difference in the kind of sentence which is imposed – whether the kind of leniency we see in Northern Ireland courts will also be shown in the courts on the mainland.
“I suspect you’ll find there to be a discrepancy in the sentence; that the sentence will be much tougher in the courts in GB than it will be in Northern Ireland.
“I hope that it is, because I think it will do two things: first of all it’ll send out a clear signal to anybody who wants to engage in terrorist activity, that they do run the risk of a long time in jail.
“And secondly it’ll maybe give a clear indication that the judges – for whatever reason – [have] become blasé about dissident terrorist activity in Northern Ireland.
“If there is a discrepancy then I think the judges will have to explain why they took the same law, and they came to different conclusions.”
He added: “I think that most people now are just disgusted at the leniency of the judiciary in Northern Ireland.
“The ease with which people can get bail, and then skip bail because the police don’t even monitor them, the lightness of the sentences when they do finally get convicted.”
The MoD was asked to comment on both concerns around vetting of Maxwell, and on how he obtained munitions, but said it was “inappropriate” to say much until after sentencing.
The News Letter’s recent coverage of paramilitary sentencing has been prompted by the disappearance of Damien McLaughlin whilst on bail, charged with helping to murder a prison officer.
The 40-year-old from the Ardboe area of Co Tyrone had been caught in possession of a stash of three powerful guns in 2009, plus ammunition and other equipment.
He served a prison sentence for that, but was free again by the end of 2011.
He denies the offences he faces in relation to the murder of David Black in 2012 – but with his trial less than a fortnight away, he cannot be found.
The News Letter has repeatedly carried reports in the past two weeks showing weak sentences handed down by Northern Irish courts to people involved in dissident paramilitarism.
They include a two-and-a-half year total jail term to an unrepentant dissident caught with two different guns just one year apart, and a suspended sentence for an 18-year-old who was found to be part of a major bomb plot in Belfast.
See other recent News Letter reports looking into sentencing: