ANALYSIS: The PSNI sought to tell dissidents there is a price to pay for causing murder and despair

Irish Times
31 Mar 2012

SHORTLY AFTER Lord Justice Girvan convicted former Sinn Féin councillor Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton of the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris made a point of walking over to the chief prosecuting lawyer, Ciaran Murphy QC, to shake hands and congratulate him.

This was a big case that carried a big message, and Mr Harris’s gesture reflected the PSNI’s sense of satisfaction at the outcome, and also its sense of relief.

It was a big case too for the family of Constable Carroll. That was obvious in how his widow Kate emotionally embraced her son Shane in the public gallery of the court after the verdict was announced.

Ms Carroll said the case brought some closure, but there was a “long, long way to go yet because not everyone connected with Steve’s murder has been found guilty”.

This is undoubtedly true, because a considerable degree of planning went into the murder operation carried out by the Continuity IRA – and certainly more than two of its members were involved.

It’s not even clear that either McConville or Wootton fired the fatal shot from the AK 47 assault rifle on the night of March 9th, 2009, that killed 48-year-old Constable Carroll. But, said Lord Justice Girvan, while the evidence against the two men was circumstantial, the case was nonetheless “compelling” and they “were both intimately involved” in the murder.

Therefore there is some sense of release for the Carroll family, and a strong sense of professional achievement for the PSNI.

It was hugely important for the police that they put up a credible, thorough case against the defendants. This wasn’t just about the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll; it was about sending a message of intent to dissident republicans: while they could cause murder and despair, there would be a price to pay.

The dissidents have been involved in three high-profile murder attacks in the past three years. In January, Brian Shivers was convicted of the dissident murders in Antrim of British soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey, which happened just two days before the murder of Constable Carroll. The other defendant, leading Lurgan republican Colin Duffy, walked free.

Of the four defendants in the two cases, three were convicted of murder, which indicates the investigators put together well-constructed, if imperfect, cases. The results must also have some effect in terms of prompting others to think twice before casting their lot with the nihilistic philosophy of the dissidents.

The third major killing was that of Constable Ronan Kerr, who died in an under-car bomb attack in Omagh on April 2nd last year. Nobody has been charged with his murder, but the PSNI is actively pursuing the case and hasn’t by any measure given up hope of yet bringing charges and achieving convictions.

Ms Carroll said she pitied the killers. “They haven’t achieved anything from when Steve was killed, from when Ronan Kerr was killed,” she said.

There are old-guard purist republicans on whom such a message will have absolutely no impact. But there must be others, mindful of a fairly strong “strike” rate by the police in terms of convictions, who will pause for thought when considering taking the dissident route.

Whatever about the involvement of a veteran republican such as McConville, who transferred from Sinn Féin to the dissidents when the Provisionals embraced the new dispensation, what motivated Wootton to get involved?

He was only 17 when Constable Carroll was murdered and would have had relatively little memory of the Troubles.

“A cop’s a cop,” was his brutal and simplistic view about it all. One wonders is he any wiser now, and does he recognise any truth in what Ms Carroll also said yesterday about the dissidents? “They have achieved nothing. They are fighting a losing battle. Why do they do it? No one wants it any more.”