Derry dissident who once had ambitions to go to university

Co-operation Ireland head says Nathan Hastings would be well advised to stay clear of prison dissidents

Nathan Hastings, who has been sentenced to 10 years after he was caught with guns and ammunition last year. Photograph: Margaret McLaughlin

Nathan Hastings, who has been sentenced to 10 years after he was caught with guns and ammunition last year. Photograph: Margaret McLaughlin

 

Nathan Hastings took his punishment deadpan. Standing in the dock in Laganside Court in central Belfast, he was pretty expressionless when Judge Piers Grant imposed a sentence of 10 years – five in custody, five on release on licence. It could have been a lot worse.

He has been on remand since April last year, so those 17 months will be part of his sentence. If he behaves himself and gets the maximum remission, he will be out in a couple of years. By then he will be 23, a young man with a life to lead and a partner and young son to support.

Certainly, his could have been a much different life. Interviewed four years ago by this newspaper when he was 17, he was studying for his A levels – religion, English literature and politics in St Columb’s College – and planning to go to university. Politics, law and sociology seemed to be his thing.

Hastings was a member of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, associated with the Real IRA before it morphed into the latest dissident manifestation, the “New IRA”.

“I am totally opposed to the use of arms and bullets and hate the idea of people dying,” he said in that 2010 interview, a comment quoted by his defence during the mitigation plea. Notwithstanding his then stated disavowal of violence, he got caught up in dissident activity, albeit, as the court was told, as a “second limb” player – in other words a minor operator, a “foot soldier” for the bigger boys.

The circumstances of his arrest were a little odd. At an earlier hearing we learned that Hastings was the driver of one of two cars that were stopped in Derry in April last year. An undercover PSNI officer, who was granted anonymity, said the arrest of Hastings was as a result of an “intelligence-led” operation.

The arrest could have been due to police or MI5 surveillance or some form of electronic detection, but equally it is not unreasonable to speculate that “intelligence-led” meant he could have been “touted on” by someone within the dissident organisation.

Peter Sheridan, head of Co-operation Ireland, knows the Hastings family in Derry from his time as a senior PSNI officer in the city. Before leaving the force he was an assistant chief constable; among his several responsibilities he was charged with tackling the dissidents.

He described the Hastings family, who did not want to speak to the press, as a well-regarded family, mainly moderate nationalist in their politics. His grandfather Gus Hastings is an SDLP councillor in Derry, who harangued local dissidents during an early hearing in Derry of his grandson’s case.

“Nathan has to take the consequences of his actions, but it is very sad,” says Sheridan. “He is a young fellow, green behind the gills. But could society have intervened in a way that could have prevented this happening?”

He refers to how a number of young republicans around Lurgan, Co Armagh, were tempted by the lure of dissident activity. They had been engaged in low-level rioting and other activity which often is a prelude to a move to more serious and sinister involvement, Sheridan says. However, with some coaxing, they had decided to take a “different life path”.

He adds that projects in which Co-operation Ireland and others were involved helped to draw them away “from the influence of dissident people and put them on a different trajectory”. Maybe the same could have happened for Nathan Hastings, he muses.

A wise move, Sheridan suggests, would be for Hastings to serve his sentence, continue his studies and keep away from dissidents in prison. Hastings, however, while on remand chose to be housed in one of the dissident wings which indicates he will remain within that republican fold.

Here it is worth noting the absence in court of dissident support during the Belfast hearings. Hastings should think deeply and be his own man, Sheridan advises. “Nathan still has big decisions to make. He needs to consider what to do in the future. Certainly the dissidents haven’t dealt him a good set of cards so far.”