Northern Ireland

High Court hears men stopped in vans loaded with machetes were intent on inflicting injury at funeral

Two men are jointly charged with possessing offensive weapons in public
Two men are jointly charged with possessing offensive weapons in public

NINE men stopped in vans loaded with machetes, hatchets, a crossbow and sword were allegedly intent on inflicting serious injury and causing mass disorder at a funeral, the High Court has heard.

Prosecutors claimed they planned to cause harm to unidentified targets before police intervened in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim.

The suspected motive was set out as bail was granted to two of those arrested during last month's interception.

Michael Bellew (38) of Northview Manor and Damien Birch (30) from Thorndale Avenue - both in Belfast - are jointly charged with possessing offensive weapons in public.

Police were alerted on January 28 by a member of the public concerned about the contents of two vans.

Officers stopped the vehicles at Swanston Road North and a short distance away on the Antrim Road.

Machetes, a sword, tomahawk axe, hatchet, flick knife, modified pike and two bottles full of a suspected corrosive liquid were seized from one van.

Bellew and Birch were present in the other van where police discovered a pickaxe, crossbow and four bolts, according to the prosecution.

Both men denied any knowledge of the weapons, with Bellew stating they "one million percent" had nothing to do with him.

But Crown lawyer Sarah Minford said the vehicles were intercepted as they travelled to a funeral event in Antrim.

"Police were concerned serious injury could have been inflicted had these vans arrived at their destination," she told the court.

"They believe this was a concerted attempt to cause injury to persons unknown, with planned mass disorder."

Six co-accused - all members of two families from the Newtownabbey area - were granted bail last week.

Ms Minford disclosed police are now taking "mitigating" steps after learning of an alleged threat to property linked to some of the defendants.

Counsel for Bellew, Sean Mullan, argued that he was only present in the van to do a day's work as a labourer.

"He knew nothing about any family feud or funeral," Mr Mullan submitted.

Birch's barrister, Luke Curran, insisted that he too remained in the front of the van without seeing anything stored in the rear.

Granting bail to both defendants, Lord Justice McCloskey imposed a ban on associating or travelling together outside work.

He ordered: "They will not be allowed to be in a motor vehicle with any of the co-accused".