A district judge has said he has never known such an “insolent interaction” with the criminal justice process as has occurred during a loyalist drugs feud in Co Down.
Mark Hamill refused bail to five Newtownards men charged with unlawful assembly and affray in custody.
Mr Hamill told Newtownards Magistrates’ Court that during the ongoing dispute between loyalist groups, graffiti was sprayed onto the wall of the court building threatening an individual.
A police officer told the court that a gathering of up to 60 men on a housing estate in April was a “concerted show of strength” during the drugs feud.
The five defendants from Newtownards – David Milligan, 43, from Shackleton Walk, Samuel Coulter, 56, from Cambourne Mews, David James Thompson, 40, from Fir Drive, Jimmy Leung, 35, from Glenbrook Road and Noel Thomas Morrison, 48, from Stirling Avenue – are all accused of being part of a large group of men who entered the Weaver’s Grange estate in the town on April 6.
The incident came during a time of heightened tensions in the area following a series of attacks on property linked to the drugs feud between opposing loyalist gangs.
The five men appeared in court via videolink and confirmed they understood the charges when they were put to them.
A PSNI detective constable told the court she could connect the five accused to the charges. However, lawyers for the defendants objected to the connections.
Outlining the facts to the court, the officer said that on the evening of April 6 a group of between 50 and 60 men climbed a fence and entered the Weaver’s Grange estate.
She said that some of the males were masked, but a larger number had their faces visible.
The officer said the men then removed a number of South East Antrim UDA banners from gable walls on the estate.
She said: “There is a well-documented loyalist feud in North Down and Newtownards.
“Detectives believe that members of one faction have engaged in a violent campaign to remove from the area persons aligned to this other faction.”
The officer told the court that police were in attendance and had recorded video footage and had also obtained a witness statement.
District judge Mark Hamill watched footage of the incident during the court proceedings.
The detective constable told the court: “The police position is this represents a concerted show of strength with the objective of intimidating Weaver’s Grange residents to make them leave the area.”
Lawyers for the five accused raised a number of objections to the police connections to the charges, including concerns over the reliability of the witness statement.
But Mr Hamill said he was satisfied with the police connection and stated that the credibility of the evidence would be tested later in the judicial process.
The lawyers for the accused also made applications for bail.
The detective constable told the court that police opposed bail amid concerns over potential intimidation or interference with witnesses and the likelihood of further offences being committed.
The officer said the feud had caused “great fear” in North Down.
She added: “The feud is still ongoing and indeed escalating and the area is highly volatile at present.”
Mr Hamill refused all the applications for bail.
He told the court: “It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the situation in Newtownards.
“There have been over 100 separate incidents ranging from petrol bomb attacks on houses to masked men gathering outside this very courthouse to graffiti threatening the life of a named person on the front wall of this very courthouse.
“In all the years of the Troubles I have never known such a direct and insolent interaction with the legal process.
“What is particularly striking is the bare-facedness of sometimes masked activity relating to this feud.
“This group of 60 people were undeterred by the presence of police at Weaver’s Grange, they were undeterred by the presence of video and they were undeterred by the presence of women and children at this estate on this night.”
He said the feud was “deploying an enormous amount of police time and effort”.
“While this feud is ongoing I have no intention of adding to the police workload.”
The judge continued: “The police are doing their best to keep a lid on this feud, and I will do my best to help them keep a lid on this feud.”
The five men were remanded in custody to appear again in court on June 28.