'IRA' court trial collapses
Judge acquits republicans of terror group membership after witnesses withdraw evidence and hit out at PPS
The trial of two leading republicans accused of IRA membership has dramatically collapsed after the prosecution announced it was "offering no evidence'' against them.
The Belfast Telegraph exclusively revealed yesterday that the trial would collapse because the main witnesses have withdrawn their evidence and said they have no confidence in the criminal justice system.
Sean Gerard Hughes (52) and Padraic Conner Wilson (55) were the two most senior mainstream republicans to have been prosecuted for paramilitary offences here since the start of the peace process.
The charges relate to events in 2005 following the murder of Robert McCartney.
Neither Wilson, of Hamill Park, Andersonstown, west Belfast, or Hughes, of Aghadavoyle Road, Jonesborough, appeared in the dock of Belfast Crown Court for the brief hearing, although both were present in the court building.
Addressing Judge Stephen Fowler QC, Crown counsel Ciaran Murphy QC said: "In the Case of Wilson and Hughes, the prosecution will not be offering any evidence.''
Both men were immediately acquitted.
As well as IRA membership, the two had been charged with arranging meetings on behalf of the banned terror group.
They pleaded not guilty to a charge of belonging to a proscribed organisation between January 1, 2005 and March 31, 2005.
They also denied that on a date unknown between February 1, 2005 and March 7, 2005 in Belfast, they "addressed a meeting and the purpose of this address was to encourage support for a proscribed organisation, namely, the Irish Republican Army, or to further its activities''.
This related to a meeting in Clonard Monastery, west Belfast.
The defendants had also pleaded not guilty to a similar charge of addressing a meeting at Holy Cross Church in Ardoyne on a date between February 25, 2005 and March 9, 2005.
No explanation was given to the court as to why the case would not be proceeding to trial.
However, one of the witnesses, due to give evidence against Wilson and Hughes, told the Belfast Telegraph that she had lost confidence in the criminal justice system.
Wilson's defence counsel Arthur Harvey QC said: "I would ask that the court direct that my client be acquitted.''
John McCrudden QC, for Sean Hughes, also asked the court to make a similar direction.
Judge Fowler QC told the court: "As the prosecution are not offering any evidence I direct the acquittal of both defendants.''
The judge added that a reporting restriction would remain in place until he had "time to reflect'' on a number of letters which had been handed into court.
These related to witnesses involved in the case who had "expressed concerns'' about their identities being revealed if the reporting restriction were lifted.
The arrest in 2012 of Wilson, a former IRA commander in the Maze prison, led to allegations of political policing by Sinn Fein. The party staged a protest outside PSNI headquarters in Knock in support of the west Belfast republican.
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly (left) claimed Wilson's arrest had undermined republican confidence in the police and demanded his immediate release. Like Wilson, south Armagh man Hughes was another key supporter of the peace process.
One of the witnesses in the case has told the Belfast Telegraph that while the PSNI handled it well, the same could not be said for the Public Prosecution Service
"As a result of a previous trial, we entered this case with very little faith in the PPS," the witness said.
"What little faith we had disappeared as the case progressed.
"We believe that the wrong charges were brought against the defendants. We were also unhappy that a key independent witness to the alleged offences wasn't called to give evidence.
"We felt he either should have been called as a witness or else charged with withholding information. When we raised these issues with the PPS we weren't given any adequate explanations.
"We got a stock reply that it didn't 'meet the evidential test' but we weren't told why or how that was so. There was no proper consultation or feedback.
"The system clearly isn't working. To keep witnesses in the dark about how decisions are reached is outdated. There is no transparency nor accountability."
There is also a substantial reason - unrelated to the PPS - which led to the witnesses withdrawing their evidence, but that reason can't be disclosed because of the court order.
A spokeswoman for the Public Prosecution Service said: "We have had a series of meetings with the principal witnesses in this case, including in the weeks leading up to this court date. One witness expressed concerns in relation to a decision not to prosecute in a related case and also the selection of charges in this case.
"We sought to address these concerns by outlining the rationale for the prosecution decisions, although we were restricted in what we could properly discuss with a witness in ongoing proceedings. This restriction was fully explained and an offer was made to provide more detailed reasons once the proceedings had concluded.
"In selecting the charges in this case we applied the test for prosecution to the available evidence. We are satisfied that the test for prosecution was met in respect of the offences charged, but not in respect of other offences to which consideration was given.
"This case was ready to proceed to full trial on June 8, 2015 and has not been subject to any undue delay in the preparation of the prosecution case. In these circumstances it is disappointing that the witnesses have withdrawn, but we respect their decision to do so.
"Now that the proceedings have concluded we are able to fulfil our commitment to the witnesses to provide further information, which we hope will meet their concerns."