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Man accused of UDR murders can return to Donegal for self-isolation, judge decides

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Murder accused John Downey at Omagh Court in October last year

Murder accused John Downey at Omagh Court in October last year

Murder accused John Downey at Omagh Court in October last year

A man charged with murdering two UDR members in 1972 can return home to Co Donegal because of Covid-19, a High Court judge ruled yesterday.

John Downey's bail terms were varied after defence lawyers argued it was not suitable for him to continue staying with a Sinn Fein representative in Belfast due to his underlying health problems.

Amid prosecution fears the move could increase the risk of flight, Mr Justice McAlinden warned how it would reflect on the party if the 68-year-old were to abscond.

He said: "If this bail breaks down I think it's inevitable that senior members of Sinn Fein in this jurisdiction would suffer significant embarrassment and reputational damage, in that they were unable to abide by assurances and undertakings given on behalf of Mr Downey."

Downey is facing prosecution for a car bomb attack which killed Alfred Johnston and James Eames in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh.

The accused, of Creeslough in Co Donegal, was detained in 2018 under a European Arrest Warrant.

He fought a battle against extradition from the Republic of Ireland before handing himself in to the authorities in October last year.

Lance Corporal Johnston and Private Eames died in an explosion on the Irvinestown Road in August 1972.

They were carrying out checks on a car when a command wire-initiated device was detonated, killing both of them instantly.

The bomb went off as a truck carrying 13 off-duty soldiers approached, blowing it onto its side and injuring some of the troops inside.

Downey is also charged with aiding and abetting an explosion likely to endanger life.

A previous court was told his fingerprint was allegedly on insulating tape used to construct the device.

In December last year he was granted bail to live at the Belfast home of a Sinn Fein councillor, with £225,000 in cash lodged as surety. Downey, who has a respiratory condition and other health issues, applied to vary those terms due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The hearing proceeded by telephone conference to avoid lawyers having to attend court in person. Defence barrister Gregory Berry QC confirmed his client wanted to go back to Donegal until the public health emergency is over.

Resisting the application, prosecution counsel Sam Magee QC said efforts could be made to locate a rural location for self-isolation within Northern Ireland.

He claimed it was illogical for Downey to return home while his wife works in an intensive care unit during the crisis.

"This virus will have no borders," Mr Magee stressed.

But Mr Berry responded that all possible steps are being taken to protect Downey's wife from coronavirus.

Meanwhile, he contended, the accused has been living in communal accommodation and depending on others for shopping.

Insisting his client would have fled by now if he had any intention, the barrister said such actions would have "catastrophic" consequences.

"There would be, bluntly, significant reputational damage for Sinn Fein if Mr Downey absconded," he agreed.

Granting the variation, Mr Justice McAlinden ordered a member of the accused's family to lodge a further £5,000 cash surety. The judge also directed Downey must have Skype video calls with a PSNI officer twice a week to ensure he is at the bail address.

Belfast Telegraph