Alleged UVF gathering was a peaceful ‘walk-through’, court is told

Up to 60 masked men involved in an alleged UVF gathering in east Belfast were staging a peaceful “walk-through” to deter one family’s suspected anti-social behaviour, the High Court heard .

A defence lawyer argued that the gathering had been a non-violent protest supported by residents
A defence lawyer argued that the gathering had been a non-violent protest supported by residents

Prosecutors claimed eleven people were forced to flee and shelter in a community centre for more than a week because the show of strength left them fearing for their lives.

But a defence lawyer argued that it had been a non-violent protest supported by residents “tortured” by the behaviour of others in the Pitt Park area.

Further details emerged as bail was refused to two men accused of taking part in the gathering on February 2.

Derek Lammey, 56, from Spring Place in Belfast, and David Matthews, 34, of Millreagh in Dundonald, are both charged with unlawful assembly and affray.

Matthews’ 58-year-old father, Stephen Matthews, of Pansy Street in Belfast, remains in custody accused of the same offences.

With the case against all three men based on disputed identification evidence, the defendants do not accept involvement.

Prosecution counsel Natalie Pinkerton said police in the area saw 50-60 men arriving with faces covered.

“These weren’t described as surgical masks, but more as dark scarves with hoods up,” she told the court.

One policeman was so concerned that he locked the doors of his vehicle, while a woman pulled up in her car, distressed and pointing at the crowd.

The gathering was split into sub-groups, according to the prosecution, with the first section allegedly led into Pitt Park by Lammey and Stephen Matthews.

A larger group headed by David Matthews followed behind, it was claimed.

According to Ms Pinkerton 11 members of the public fled to the nearby Ballymac Centre, where they remained for up to eight days under a constant police presence.

“This included a pregnant woman, children and it’s indicated they brought their dogs from their homes,” she submitted.

“They told police that they feared for their safety and their lives.”

Asked if they were allegedly targeted by the crowd, counsel referred to an “undercurrent”, but was not instructed to disclose a specific reason.

However, she did confirm that those who were to the community centre were all part of the same family.

Statements from civilian witnesses claimed the group of men were part of the East Belfast UVF, the court heard.

One alleged that she had been warned that a crowd was on the way and she should get her children out of the house for safety.

Another said a friend told her to get out because a “team” was coming.

Even though none of the defendants have been charged with any paramilitary offences, Ms Pinkerton contended: “Based on the evidence it’s the police belief that all of these men are members of the UVF.

“This involved a display of sinister force by the group acting together in this manner.”

Michael Chambers, for David Matthews, described the objections to bail as “flimsy, unfocused and unsustainable”.

Insisting that the alleged UVF connection should be discounted, he added: “Opinion evidence and anonymous hearsay evidence is not admissible in any form of court proceedings.”

Mr Justice McFarland was told that a registered charity sent a letter to police indicating it was behind the incident, a peaceful “walk-through” to deter people suspected of anti-social behaviour in the area.

The organisation describes itself as “facilitating the rehabilitation of the UVF and Red Hand Commando”.

Conor O’Kane, representing Derek Lammey, claimed a majority of people living in the area were in support of what occurred.

“There is a small family who the Pitt Park residents group say have ‘tortured’ the broader community for years,” he told the court.

“This was a protest on behalf of residents of Pitt Park, who are tired of the behaviour of a certain family and their connection.”

It was also contended that there was nothing sinister about covering faces during the ongoing pandemic.

“If this was a few years ago thirty of forty men gathered with masks on would be one thing, but in Covid masks have a different connotation completely,” the barrister said.

Denying bail to both accused, however, Mr Justice McFarland cited the risk of potential further offences.

He said: “There still appears to be a problem in this area.”