Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Republicans acquitted as IRA membership trial collapses

The trial of a Dromintee man, which was due to begin in Belfast Crown Court today (Monday) dramatically collapsed on Wednesday last when key prosecution witnesses in the case withdrew their evidence.

Sean Hughes (52) from Adavoyle Road, along with Belfast man Padraic Wilson, had been accused of IRA membership and addressing a meeting to encourage support for the organization.  The charges related to events in 2005 following the murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast city centre.  Both men denied the charges.

At a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday, Hughes and Wilson were acquitted of all the charges after the prosecution offered no evidence against the pair.

A number of key witnesses withdrew their evidence and, although no explanation was given by the court, it is believed disagreement over the charges brought against the defendants, coupled with a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole, may have been behind the decision.  Reporting restrictions prevent the identities of witnesses being revealed.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said it is disappointed at the witnesses’ withdrawal of evidence: “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.”

The spokeswoman revealed the case was ready to proceed to full trial on 8th June and was not 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“In these circumstances it is disappointing that the witnesses have withdrawn, but we respect their decision to do so.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,” she added.