Leading loyalist Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine has been granted bail with almost no restrictions after a judge was told that Mr Irvine’s DNA was not present on a holdall containing guns in his car.
References were also provided for the Shankill loyalist — who was arrested on June 8 with a number of weapons and ammunition in his car — by senior figures, the court was told, including a Northern Ireland minister.
Mr Irvine had been in custody on charges connected to the weapons seizure made in Belfast last month.
The 47-year-old, of Ballysillan Road in the city, is accused of possessing a firearm and ammunition in suspicious circumstances, possessing a prohibited firearm, possession of a handgun without a certificate, and having ammunition without a certificate.
A second man, Robin Workman (51), from Shore Road in Larne, Co Antrim, is also currently in custody on the same charges.
Police claim Workman, who works as a joiner, transported the haul of guns in his van to a meeting with his co-accused in the Glencairn area.
On July 1, a court was told that DNA tests on the weapons and the bag could take up to a month to be completed. During a previous hearing it was said a mixed DNA profile on the handles of a plastic bag may have contained Mr Irvine’s DNA.
However, during a High Court bail application on Wednesday, the court was told testing was now complete and Mr Irvine’s DNA was not discovered on the bag.
Defence barrister Joe Brolly told the court that Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns had provided a letter saying he would have no issue in continuing dialogue with the accused, who, the court was told, works for cross-community organisation Intercomm.
The letter was dated December 2021.
A former Policing Board chair also provided a character reference, as a did a number of other people who were not named.
It was previously alleged in court that a PSNI chief held discussions with the leading loyalist about decommissioning weapons.
Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton later confirmed no telephone conversation took place between himself and Mr Irvine on the day before a bag containing guns and ammunition was found in the boot of Mr Irvine’s car.
During the hearing it was said that the Assistant Chief Constable had confirmed regular contact between the pair, but not in relation to the matters before the court.
When asked if internet access should be a condition of bail, the defence indicated a statement was about to be released of significant importance.
My Brolly said: “It is important that he does. My Lord will be aware of very sensitive material. My Lord is also aware that a witness has attended today who had asked to give evidence anonymously to the court.
“There is going to be a publication once Mr Irvine is released — that was delayed — which might have fundamental importance in our society as a whole and it will be important that he has internet access,” he added.
Prior to the commencement of the hearing the defence and prosecution met with the judge in his chambers to discuss matters of “sensitivity” that were not heard in open session.
A witness who was present and was to give evidence anonymously was also not called on. No further detail was given as to the nature of this witness’s evidence and its relevance to the case.
Prosecution barrister Natalie Pinkerton said police would like an exclusion zone that would have banned Mr Irvine from the greater Belfast area.
The judge refused this application.
Mr Justice O’Hara said: “I am going to grant bail to Mr Irvine. Whatever the police concerns about him, he is a man who is now 47, he has a very limited criminal record and, whatever the risk, I think they can be managed.”
He was ordered not to have contact with his co-accused, but was not required to be subject to the exclusion zone or be subject to a curfew or electronic tag.
Questions were raised over a pin code for a mobile phone. The court was told that if a RIPA application was made by police the code would be handed over.
He was released on £750 bail and a £10,000 family surety.