21 October 2005

Loyalists 'avoiding prison in gun cases'

Belfast Telegraph

By Chris Thornton
21 October 2005

The Government's chief law officers have received a formal complaint about loyalists avoiding jail in cases where they were arrested with illegal guns.

SDLP Assembly member John Dallat complained to the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, and Lord Chief Justice Sir Brian Kerr, and sent them dossiers of cases where "shockingly light sentences" were applied.

The Northern Ireland Office and the Irish government also received the party's dossier arguing that loyalists are routinely "getting away with it".

The complaint came after three men who confronted police with a deactivated AK-47 escaped jail at Belfast Crown Court last week.

The trio - brothers John and Gary McDonald and a friend, Stephen Maternaghan, all with addresses in Innishrush Road, Portglenone - had tried to stop a van before they approached police with the gun, which is incapable of firing but looks like a working weapon.

Judge Kevin Finnegan gave the men suspended sentences.

Mr Dallat said his party believes the case fits a pattern where loyalists have received light sentences.

"The SDLP is deeply concerned that far too often, loyalists are avoiding prison even though they have been convicted of the most serious crimes," he said.

"We are not alone in this concern. Hugh Orde has publicly stated that he believes that paramilitaries too often are getting too light sentences.

"That undermines the rule of law. There's no point bringing loyalists to court if they are going to just get away with it."

The dossier presented to the legal chiefs also cites the case of a loyalist who received a conditional discharge for having another deactivated weapon, even though he had recently been freed from jail for a punishment attack and had other convictions.

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