Belfast Telegraph

IRA membership trial collapses as witnesses withdraw evidence against top republicans Padraic Wilson and Sean Hughes

By Suzanne Breen

A major IRA membership trial has collapsed because the main witnesses have withdrawn their evidence and said they have no confidence in the criminal justice system, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Leading republicans Padraic Wilson and Sean Hughes were due to go on trial in Belfast Crown Court next week on charges of belonging to a proscribed organisation and addressing a meeting to encourage support for the IRA.

But it is understood the key prosecution witnesses have withdrawn from the case.

Wilson and Hughes have been acquitted of all charges.

They 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.

The case was set to collapse after several witnesses central to the trial withdrew their evidence last week.

The Belfast Telegraph knows the identity of the witnesses but is prevented from naming them by a court order which will be lifted later today.

The arrest in 2012 of Padraic Wilson, a former IRA commander in the Maze prison, led to allegations of political policing by Sinn Fein. The party staged a protest outside PNSI headquarters in Knock in support of the west Belfast republican.

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly claimed Wilson's arrest had undermined republican confidence in the police and demanded his immediate release. Like Wilson, Sean Hughes - from Jonesborough in south Armagh - was another key supporter of the peace process.

One of the witnesses, due to give evidence against Wilson and Hughes, told the Belfast Telegraph that she had lost complete confidence in the criminal justice system.

She said: "We have nothing but praise for the PSNI officers involved in this case. We make no criticism of them whatsoever. But we cannot say the same for the Public Prosecution Service.

"As a result of a previous trial, we entered this case with very little faith in the PPS. 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."

The witness claimed the PPS's decision-making process was "fundamentally flawed" and needed reformed urgently.

She said: "We feel that the PPS can unfortunately run with a weak case, which has little chance of securing a conviction in court, just to be seen by the public to be doing something. My family has been through this before with another case and we didn't want the trauma of going through it all again."

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.

The witness criticised the reporting restrictions which meant her identity, and that of the other witnesses, can't be revealed by the Belfast Telegraph at this stage. "We never asked for this court order. We never wanted our identities kept secret. This is yet another criticism we have of how badly the case has been handled," she said.

"The whole system is a shambles. It doesn't work for either victims or defendants. The defendants here will now be found not guilty because we withdrew our evidence.

"As critical as we are of the system, we believe in the rule of law so we respect that."

Had Wilson and Hughes been tried and convicted, they wouldn't have been eligible for early release, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, because the alleged offences occurred after April 1998.

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 on-going 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 8 June 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.”

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