Guest writer Alec McCrory with an account of his experiences at the lower levels of the North's British justice system.
More than two years ago we buried a dear friend and comrade, Peter Skeet Hamilton after his brief though doomed battle with a highly aggressive form of cancer. He had spent many years on the run in Dundalk, a town he loved as a second home. Skeet was well known by republicans the length and breadth of the island. His popularity was acknowledged by the hundreds of people who turned out on both sides of the border to see him off on his final journey. As the cortege left Dundalk his many friends, neighbours and comrades waited patiently in his beloved Ardoyne for the return of the prodigal son.
Peter’s funeral was a massive occasion attended by upwards to 1000 mourners. The small housing estate was congested as the funeral procession wound its way through the small district street by street. There were few tears for the man we were burying would have told us to dry our eyes and get on with it. That was his type, gregarious, witty, redoubtable and loyal to a fault. Skeet Hamilton truly was one in a million.
After the funeral we returned to the Crumlin Star for typical Irish knees up in honour of our friend and comrade. He was remembered in song and hilarious anecdotes told by childhood friends and former prisoners. Later in the evening I and some friends went to another local club close by. A lot of alcohol had been consumed by this stage but the mood was light hearted and comradely. Within a short time a fracas developed over the singing of songs and some edgy banter. This situation was quickly resolved and we left the premises.
Outside we were met by a large number of heavily clad policemen who were spoiling for a fight. They had blocked off the cul-de-sac preventing our exit. Before attempting to ascertain our identities a number of police moved quickly to seize one of our group. He was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed to the rear. The rest of us attempted to intercede at which point the police drew batons and CS gas canisters.
Several local people came out of their homes to observer the incident only to get caught up in the melee. Some were pushed to the ground and others sprayed with CS gas. Three friends and I were arrested and brought to Lisburn police station where we spent the night in the cells. We were charged the next morning and brought to Belfast Magistrate’s Court. All of us had sustained cuts and bruises but no charges were brought against the police officers responsible for our injuries. We, other the other hand, were charged with a range of public order offences including assault on police.
For the next two years we travelled to the court for remand hearings. Anywhere else in Britain or Ireland a case such as this would have been dealt with in half the time. One of the big issues for the Stormont administration today relates to the massive amount of public resources used up by the criminal justice system. Is it any wonder? For the judges, barristers and solicitors it is bottomless pit of fees and legal aid checks.
Finally, the trial began the week before Christmas. It was clear from the outset we were fighting an uphill struggle. When before a British court republicans face two problems: the innate respect the judges have for the police on the one hand and, a pronounced bias against all things republican, on the other. Believe me on this. I have been there.
The prosecution offered me a deal involving a binding over for one year which I declined. I knew the case against me was a weak one. As always the police evidence was extremely contradictory: police officers are easily put under pressure in the box by experienced defence advocates. One police officer in particular completely undermined the core of the case made against us i.e. that we were responsible for what happened by own actions. In the summing up the judge simply set aside this important piece of testimony describing the police offer as weak witness. How convenient!
With Christmas looming the trial was adjourned until after the festive holiday. Before this the charges against me were struck out and I was released from the court. However, the judge had cause to be irked. In good old republican fashion we refused to stand up whenever he entered and exited the courtroom; never advisable if one is looking for a sympathetic hearing. To save himself the embarrassment, as well as, to prevent this flagrant show of disrespect to the court, he dispensed with the formality of bring us into the dock. Poor man!
The court reconvened on the 4th of January to hear the remaining witnesses including two of the accused. It adjourned again until the 18th of this month for a judgement. On Tuesday my three friends were found guilty on all counts. The honourable judge accepted the weight of evidence and explained the major inconsistencies as something he would expect to find in an incident such as the one before him. Touché!
The men were found guilty and each received a ten month concurrent sentence suspended for 3 years.
Another good day’s work in the courts of British justice