The jail term of up to 18 years given to a dissident republican by a London court puts fresh focus on how Northern Irish judges deal with terror crimes, according to a former anti-terror officer.
William Matchett, an ex-Special Branch officer, said this week’s jailing of former Royal Marine Ciaran Maxwell sends out a “powerful signal that terrorism will not be tolerated” – whereas sentencing for terror crimes in his native Northern Ireland can sometimes seem “bizarre” and “appalling”.
Meanwhile, Jim Allister, a qualified barrister and leader of the TUV, joined him in saying that he suspects the sentence meted out to Maxwell at the Old Bailey was “stiffer” than would have been handed out in his home country.
The Lord Chief Justice’s Office, representing the Province’s judiciary, responded that it is “not appropriate” to compare different cases.
Maxwell is originally from Larne but was living in Devon at the time of his arrest last year, after munitions dumps were uncovered in Co Antrim.
It turned out he had strong dissident republican sympathies and had been hoarding large stores of explosives and equipment in over 40 different caches, and building bombs for the Continuity IRA (four of which were subsequently used).
Twenty-four of the munitions caches were in and around Larne and 19 in Devon, and included pipe bombs (intended to be filled with ballbearings), mines, and what were described to the court as “three victim-operated torch improvised explosive devices”.
He pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts under Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006 – the maximum sentence for which is life. As widely reported, he got an 18-year jail term, plus five on licence.
However, the News Letter understands this is a maximum term in jail, and that he could be eligible for parole after 12 years (though his licence period will remain fixed).
Maxwell also admitted lower-level offences involving drugs and fraud, with sentences to be served concurrently.
Dr Matchett said if sentencing had been in Northern Ireland, “I don’t think it would have been as severe” as 18 years in jail.
He said: “I think the criminal justice system here is sort of conditioned to lenient sentences for whatever reason, especially since the peace process kicked in.”
He further added that, prior to his retirement in 2014, he had witnessed “demoralising” sentences being handed out over cases which he had helped to build.
If the Maxwell case had been one of his own, he would have been pleased with the punishment handed out.
“It puts the judicial apparatus here under a degree of pressure,” he said.
“People are going to be now tracking to see what the sentencing is going to look like here for different cases that are coming up.
“I think it sends out a very powerful signal that terrorism will not be tolerated, and I don’t know that is always the signal sent out here by the sentencing regime.”
While he said Maxwell’s sentence was “nowhere near” the smaller terms handed out for other weapons cases he could think of in Northern Ireland, he also acknowledged that it was aggravated by factors including the fact that he was a Royal Marine.
Mr Allister, meanwhile, said that a sentence of 18 years was “more appropriate” than some of those handed out in dissident cases in Northern Ireland.
He added: “It shouldn’t be easier to be a terrorist in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
“[They] should face parallel punishment, and it needs to be a deterrent punishment.”
He said that it was “too hypothetical” to imagine what sentence he might have received in Northern Ireland.
“But judging by some sentences in the last couple of years, I suspect he mightn’t have got as much,” he said.
“No two cases are identical; that always has to be remembered. And there has to be room for judicial discretion.
“But you’re looking for trends, and I think the trend in Northern Ireland is too light.”
The Lord Chief Justice’s Office said: “Sentencing is a matter for each individual judge after consideration of the specific circumstances of each case. It is not therefore appropriate to compare the sentences handed down in different cases in different jurisdictions.”