Flute band trial up in air over witness’s unbooked flights

The offence is alleged to have happened outside St Patrick's Chapel in north Belfast
The offence is alleged to have happened outside St Patrick's Chapel in north Belfast

Thirteen members of a loyalist flute band accused of provocatively playing a sectarian tune outside a Catholic Church had their trial put on hold on Wednesday – because no flights were booked for an expert prosecution witness.

A forensic video analyst was due to give evidence in the case against those from the Young Conway Volunteers allegedly filmed walking in circles while playing the Famine Song at St Patrick’s Chapel in north Belfast.

But the contested hearing into the Twelfth of July events back in 2012 had to be adjourned for a third time after the judge was told of the “administrative breakdown” within the Public Prosecution Service.

Revealing that flights were not booked for the analyst to travel from England, PPS lawyer John O’Neill offered apologies on behalf of the service.

He told Belfast Magistrates’ Court: “I have been liasing with senior prosecutors in the PPS who are outraged this has happened, and will be making inquiries how this could have happened in a case like this where a special day has been set aside.”

Mr O’Neill also confirmed that charges against two of the 15 flute band members originally charged over the incident are to be withdrawn.

It leaves 11 men and two youths still facing claims that they committed a provocative act by playing a sectarian tune while marching in a circular formation outside the church on Donegall Street.

The band have denied claims that it was playing the Famine Song during the Twelfth of July demonstration.

All of the defendants were in court to hear details of the administrative oversight being disclosed.

Their lawyers then urged the judge to dismiss the charges against them.

Barrister Paul Bacon argued that it would be the third adjournment through no fault on the part of the defendants.

He said: “We find ourselves here today at great public expense, and are told that a flight wasn’t booked for such a fundamental witness.”

District Judge Copeland said it was “highly regrettable” the contest could not proceed due to a “very basic clerical error”.

He added: “I’m told by the prosecutor that how that came about will be a matter for robust inquiry. That will be for the director and senior staff.”

However, he refused to throw out the case against the accused.

“I’m satisfied it would not be in the interests of justice, or for that matter the public interest, to dismiss this case,” he said.

The judge instead directed that a new date is to be fixed so that the contest is heard before the end of February.