Three men have been remanded in custody over charges in connection with a large gathering in east Belfast.
Stephen Matthews, 58, of Pansy Street in Belfast, David Matthews, 34, of Millreagh in Dundonald, and Derek Lammey, 56, of Spring Place in Belfast, have all been charged with unlawful assembly and affray.
They have been linked by the prosecution with a “sinister display of force” and alleged by civilian witnesses to be part of the East Belfast UVF.
A court heard the incident centred around a group of 11 people who sheltered in the Ballymac Centre for eight days.
Stephen Matthews was identified by police on the day as being at the front of the group, “displaying a leadership role”.
The trio appeared before Belfast Magistrates’ Court on Friday afternoon where they indicated they understood the charges which relate to a gathering in the Pitt Park area on February 2.
A prosecution lawyer told the court a large crowd of between 50-60 people were observed walking towards the Pitt Park area.
She said they were wearing face coverings and had hoods up.
“All appeared together, there for a common purpose and appeared organised,” she said.
She outlined how a woman pulled up in a vehicle to speak to police and appeared “distressed and fearful and was pointing in the direction of the large crowd”.
The crowd were seen gesturing in the direction of the Ballymac Centre, calling for people to come out.
Officers at the scene were described as having identified the three defendants.
“It is accepted that all three were wearing masks to a degree, but the officers have said that they not only recognised the three individuals through facial recognition but by build and height,” she said.
Officers sought to speak to all three defendants at the scene “in an attempt to defuse the situation”, a person officers contend was Mr Lammey responded, the court heard, saying: “Watch that Covid.”
Those inside the Ballymac Centre were described as “sheltering” and included a pregnant woman with children.
The court heard that up to 11 people sheltered in the centre for eight days, until February 10.
The prosecution lawyer described evidence in the case as comprising of body worn camera footage, CCTV, officers statements and statements from civilian witnesses.
“Witnesses from the local area told police that this group was part of the East Belfast UVF,” she said.
None of the three spoke during police interview, according to the prosecution, but Stephen Matthews provided a written statement in which he denied all of the allegations.
Prosecution argued against bail due to a risk of reoffending and potential interference with the course of justice in relation to civilian witnesses.
“Now that these individuals have been charged there is significant concern that tensions in the area will rise,” she said.
Defence lawyers for the three defendants queried whether the men were identified by officers at the scene or afterwards.
They also queried why the men had not been arrested until this week.
A police officer who appeared in court said identifications were made when they commenced the investigation, and also contended that arrests were not made immediately due to “tensions”.
“There was suggestions that if we acted at that time, that would exasperate those tensions and lead to disorder,” the officer said.
A defence lawyer for Stephen Matthews said the argument of potential interference in the justice process is “not justifiable”.
“This man was not arrested until 15 days after he was identified, so the alleged intimidation that didn’t take place during those 15 days is in my respectful submission unjustifiable,” he said, adding that this is an “identification case” which “will be a very tricky case for the Crown”, and “won’t take place as a trial for months and months”.
Lawyers for David Matthews and Mr Lammey made similar arguments on behalf of their clients.
The lawyer for David Matthews put to the police officer: “If they were that much of a risk you wouldn’t have let them be out in the community for so long.”
The officer responded: “I am satisfied that there was a risk however I believe tensions would have been exasperated if we had moved in the days afterwards, there was community mediation ongoing at that time, there is a large scale police investigation which is still ongoing.”
The lawyer for Mr Lammey said there are “clear identification issues, a very select group of civilian statements that are lacking in veracity of evidence”.
After listening to the arguments, District Judge Fiona Bagnall said in these particular cases, she considered there is a “potential and likelihood of reoffending, and a risk of interference in the course of justice”.
“For those reasons, I am going to remand them all in custody at this stage to March 19 on videolink,” she said.