The recent arrest of lay magistrate Delia Van der Lenden and her retired Dutch naval officer husband was what you might describe as an own goal by the PSNI. Mrs Van der Lenden said after their release that either the PSNI targeted them for "malicious reasons" or they had lousy intelligence. I'd say most people would go along with that, and let's be honest, the couple's impeccably middle-class appearance probably helped as well. It's a sad fact but we're more prone to believe in people with clean fingernails and nice houses than those with dirty fingernails and coarse voices.
But the part of this case that I found most interesting was the fact that reports of the arrest of the Van der Lendens invariably mentioned Mrs Van der Lenden's son, Ciaran Cunningham, a republican political activist who was given six years in 2004 when he pleaded guilty to collecting information likely to be useful to dissident republicans. Two questions.
1. Was Mrs Van der Lenden appointed a lay magistrate before or after her son's conviction? I ask because I know someone who applied to become a Prison Visitor, and the forms they had to fill in asked all sorts of questions about the applicant's family, yea, verily unto the second and third generation preceding. The implication behind the questions was, if you had any skeletons in the family, you weren't going to do any Prison Visiting. So my guess - kick me if I'm wrong - is that Mrs Van der Lenden got the lay magistrate green light before her son Ciaran got arrested and sentenced.[NOTE: WELL, I GUESSED WRONG - NOT FOR THE FIRST TIME. RELIABLE SOURCES HAVE JUST INFORMED ME THAT MRS VAN DER LENDEN'S APPOINTMENT PRECEDED HER SON'S ARREST AND CONVICTION. I STAND RED-FACED AND IN ERROR. PERMISSION TO KICK GRANTED.]
2. Why do relatives matter in judging people? I can see how my record - what I've said and done - would affect my suitability for certain posts. But why should the activities of any of my relatives affect it, for good or ill? Should I suffer because my son or sister or cousin gets up to something the authorities disapprove of? I've no control over their actions. The very idea runs counter to natural justice. Taken to extremes, you could find yourself turned down for a job because your great-uncle was once up in court for shop-lifting. I know this way of judging happens unofficially among stupid people ("Oh, s/he's one of the Murphys, I taught the older brother, they're a bad lot"), but that it should operate at official level is outrageous.