High court judge slams flag bail debate

March 11, 2013

By Christine Keighery

One of Northern Ireland’s top High Court judges has branded the row over bail decisions an “ill-informed debate” which could undermine the rule of law.

Mr Justice McCloskey made the comments following days of controversy over perceived bias regarding recent bail decisions involving flag protestors Willie Frazer and Jamie Bryson and prominent Dromintee republican, Sean Hughes.

Last week, Hughes was released on bail after facing charges of IRA membership.

Frazer and Bryson were denied bail on separate occasions over charges linked to the union flag protests.

The detainment of Frazer and Bryson prompted a complaint by First Minister Peter Robinson, who along with other unionists, said there was an image of “double standards” being set by the bail decisions.  Robinson accused the courts of treating the two sides differently with leading republicans getting bail in contrast to loyalists.

Justice McCloskey hit out at the accusations in a bail hearing for Jamie Bryson last week, saying they simply “engendered confusion and misunderstanding.”  He added that the row which had erupted could have other serious consequences and could jeopardise the balance between judiciary and government.

Justice Minister David Ford supported the Judge’s views and said he was “baffled” by the complaints of Unionist politicians.

“At the beginning of the week Peter Robinson called on the judges to clarify what their position was. Frankly to ask a judge to explain their decision is exactly what they do in court every time they give a judgement,” he said

Mr Ford said that politicians and “Sammy Wilson in particular” needed to educate themselves “in the way the law operates and the virtues of it” and added that it was important that judges have the independence of their office.