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Masked men in Belfast court ‘retriggering’ for victims’ families

The sight of masked men in a Belfast court during a double murder trial is “retriggering” for victims’ families and highlights a “fundamental problem” in the system, the head of a support organisation has said.

Sandra Peake of the Wave Trauma Centre said she “couldn’t believe” that hooded and masked men were allowed to sit in the public gallery of Belfast Crown Court on Monday, where former loyalist paramilitary-turned-supergrass Gary Haggarty was giving evidence in the trial of James Smyth.

Smyth is accused of the sectarian murders of Catholic workmen Eamon Fox and Gary Convie in 1994. He denies the charges.

About six men sat with face coverings of masks and baseball caps – one was wearing a Union Jack beanie hat – during three hours of evidence on Monday before the families’ solicitor, Pádraig Ó Muirigh, raised the matter formally with police.


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Mr Ó Muirigh told The Irish Times that police were present in the courtroom and the appearance of the masked men created “a very intimidating atmosphere” for “traumatised” families.

The trial judge, Mr Justice O’Hara, then warned that anyone covering their faces would be removed from the court.

Ms Peake, who has accompanied relatives of victims to court for decades through her work with Wave – Northern Ireland’s largest cross-community support organisation for victims and survivors of the Troubles – said the matter should have been dealt with “immediately”.

“This shouldn’t have been allowed to go on but I think it highlights a fundamental problem in the court system where victims and survivors historically have had to run the gauntlet of groups and supporters being in courts, standing in the corridors and sometimes jeering at the families – on all sides,” she said.

“For these families to see masked men in the court must have been very threatening. Remember, for so many people, it was hooded and masked people that came and killed their loved ones or severely maimed them so that in itself is very retriggering for families.

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“But I think the court system in general is retriggering for families because often cases are heard in court 13 and there’s a long narrow corridor down to it. I walked with families down to it when they have faced people on both sides who are supporters of the accused, and it makes it very difficult for them.”

On Tuesday, the head of Northern Ireland’s judiciary, Lady Chief Justice Siobhan Keegan, released a statement saying the appearance of the masked men was “not acceptable and should not have happened”.

“The Lady Chief Justice has asked NICTS [Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service] to identify how this incident occurred,” it said.

Mark Thompson of victims and survivors group, Relatives for Justice, said he had been contacted by families since Monday expressing “revulsion” at the incident.

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When asked by The Irish Times to respond to the concerns, a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service said it had “commenced a review to establish the details of the incident”.

In a statement, the Police Service of Northern Ireland defended its position: “At the first opportunity, in discussion with court staff, police made the judge aware of this and he directed that the face coverings be removed. No further incidents have occurred.

“Police are conscious that this is a sensitive trial and will continue to be present in the court to support the judicial proceedings and protect and reassure witnesses.

“If there is any reoccurrence in public, police will seek to use all appropriate legislation and powers to prevent it. We will work with court staff to prevent any reoccurrence inside the confines of the court.”