A loyalist on trial for firearms offences has denied a Makarov-type pistol which was found during a police search of his property was his weapon.
Instead, Mark Harbinson said he had a “firm suspicion” that the handgun, silencer and ammunition were planted in an outbuilding used to house timber by someone else to set him up.
The weapon, sound suppressor and ammunition were found wrapped in a red plastic Family Circle biscuit box which was located by officers during a search of Harbinson’s then home at Sheepwalk Road in Lisburn on December 21, 2015.
Belfast Crown Court heard that after the search, 51-year old Harbinson left Northern Ireland via Dublin, and travelled to Cumbria. When arrested on December 31st, the former UDR soldier had his passport and £7,800.
Harbinson, from Stoneyford Road in Lisburn, has been charged with, and denies, three offences arising from the search - namely possessing the pistol, silencer and 28 rounds of ammunition in suspicious circumstances, and possessing both the handgun, and the ammunition, without holding a Firearms Certificate.
As he was called to give evidence, Harbinson was first questioned by his barrister before being cross-examined by a Crown prosecutor.
After swearing an oath on the Bible, Harbinson confirmed he served a prison sentence for sexual offences, and was not present at his Sheepwalk Road home from mid 2009 until his release in May 2013. He also confirmed that he has received threats from both republican and loyalist paramilitaries, has been the subject of a “campaign of intimidation” and installed security measures at his home.
When asked by his barrister why he went to England after becoming aware of the search and subsequent discovery of a gun at his property in December 2015, and why he didn’t return to Northern Ireland, Harbinson said: “I have absolutely no explanation other than to say that at that particular time in my life, I had receipt of mental health issues. I was suffering from depression and anxiety.”
“All I can say is that I had a complete and utter meltdown in my thought process. I wasn’t thinking straight. Looking back now, it was a terrible time in my life.”
Harbinson was also asked about a conversation he had with a woman whilst in Cumbria, where he told her his past was catching up with him. When asked by his barrister what he meant by this, the former Orangeman said he felt he would “always be associated” with his past.
Turning his attention to the weapon found in the biscuit box, the defence barrister asked his client: “Did you have anything to do with putting that box in this concealed area above the stick house at any time prior to December 21, 2015?” Harbinson replied “absolutely not.” He also denied knowing about the weapon’s existence.
Harbinson was then asked how his fingerprints came to be found in the red biscuit box. Telling the court he had no explanation, Harbinson said “it could have been any biscuit box” as he had numerous tins and boxes in that outbuilding he kept staples and bolts in.
And when asked if anyone he knew had asked him to keep the gun on his property, Harbinson replied: “I don’t think anyone would have asked me to keep that firearm near me, but it would have been a firm no. I would not have stored ammunition or guns like that for anyone.”
Once again rejecting suggestions that the gun was his, Harbinson reiterated his claim that it was planted on his property. He said: “It’s my firm suspicion, because I am genuinely sitting here today knowing I didn’t do it. I didn’t place that firearm underneath the stairs or anywhere near my farm. Someone must have done it.”
Under cross-examination by the Crown prosecutor, Harbinson was asked what he was doing on the day his home was searched. The defendant said he was helping his father to fix a tractor.
He then denied a series of allegations put to him by the Crown. He denied “hiding from police” that evening, and “running away” the following day, and “taking some steps” before he went to England - including obtaining his passport and £7,800.
Harbinson was also quizzed about his experience as a soldier in the UDR. He confirmed that part of his training was in firearms, and agreed that he could maintain, strip, clean and re-assemble weapons, but said the last time he fired a gun was during training at Ballykinler in the mid 1980s.
The Crown barrister asked Harbinson how and why his fingerprints were found on the biscuit box. Telling the court he didn’t eat that particular brand of biscuits, Harbinson said he was initially shocked but said: “If my fingerprints are on the box, I have handled it in some way, shape or form. No doubt about it.”
He also claimed “someone has used the box that I have on my property to do this to me”, and said: “At some stage I have touched that box. There is no getting away from that, but I never ever in my life did what is being alleged.”
When the Crown prosecutor asked Harbinson how this was possible, given the security measures at his isolated rural property, the defendant said he didn’t know who it was but “I have wracked my mind for who would have done this to me.
“I have questioned close friends and family, I have become very suspicious of even close friends and blamed people, quite innocent people. In my circle of friends, I suspected everyone. It’s made me so paranoid.”
Harbinson confirmed he had taken security measures, and at the time had a pick axe handle and a sports crossbow at this property. When the prosecutor asked if someone came to shoot him, surely a gun would be a more effective form of protection, Harbinson replied: “But I don’t have a licence for a gun.”
The Crown barrister ended his cross examination by pointing out that this was precisely why he was before the courts on one of the three charges he faces.