Northern Ireland news

Jamie Bryson 'should not be facing prosecution for telling the truth', court hears

Jamie Bryson watches then Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay on a screen in the Great Hall in Stormont in September 2015. Picture by Mal McCann

LOYALIST activist Jamie Bryson should not be facing prosecution for "telling the truth" at a Stormont committee examining a billion pound property deal, the High Court has heard.

His barrister claimed no crime was involved in giving evidence on an issue of "enormous public importance".

Mr Bryson and former Sinn Féin MLA Daithi McKay are challenging decisions to return them both for trial on a charge of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.

They were unfairly denied the opportunity to contest revised allegations against them, it was contended.

But judges were also told their legal action is a dangerous attempt to thwart and end the criminal process.

Counsel for the prosecution, Tony McGleenan QC, insisted a trial is necessary to examine any alleged attempts to subvert the Stormont inquiry.

The case relates to a probe into the £1.2bn sale of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama)'s Northern Ireland property portfolio to US investment giant Cerberus.

In September 2015 Mr Bryson gave explosive evidence to the finance committee examining the deal.

At the time Mr McKay was chairman of the committee. A year later he stood down as an MLA for North Antrim and quit Sinn Féin.

Following a police investigation Mr Bryson, Mr McKay, and Sinn Féin member Thomas O'Hara were all charged with conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.

Judicial review proceedings were launched after a district judge returned them for trial at the Crown Court.

John Larkin QC, representing Mr Bryson, questioned whether his client's actions amounted to any alleged offence.

"There simply is no public harm in telling the truth on a matter of public importance," he told the court.

Part of the challenge relates to the ability of defence lawyers to deal with an amended charge.

Martin O'Rourke QC, for Mr McKay, submitted: "There was a procedural unfairness which effectively denied the applicant an opportunity to contest the committal proceedings."

During the hearing, the three-judge panel repeatedly stressed the protections still available to defendants returned for trial.

And Mr McGleenan also stressed applications can be made at the Crown Court to halt the case on either a no bill or abuse of process.

Turning to the alleged circumstances, he contended that Twitter exchanges led to Mr Bryson's evidence being given in open session "exactly as scripted", with committee members unable to stop public revelations.

Mr McGleenan argued: "These exchanges indicate a very clear exercise in coaching the potential contributor to the committee as to exactly how he should present the evidence.

"It's plain as day that's being done in order to ensure that the evidence is heard in an open session, on a live feed, without interruption."

Expressing unease at the legal bid to halt the criminal case, he added: "What is going on here... is a matter of profound public concern.

"This goes to the root of our sometimes volatile democratic institutions. The public is entitled to impose trust in the way those institutions operate."

The hearing continues.

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