Gary Haggarty: ‘Disbelief’ at masked men inside Belfast courtroom

Laganside courts masked men
The masked men pictured outside Laganside courts - they later sat inside a murder trial

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has expressed disbelief that masked men appeared in the public gallery of a Belfast court during a murder trial.

Masked men appeared during a trial over the killing of Eamon Fox and Gary Convie in 1994 on Monday.

Northern Ireland’s most senior judge has ordered a review of the incident.

Mr Heaton-Harris told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee: “I simply can’t believe that happened.”

He added: “The Lady Chief Justice (Dame Siobhan Keegan) has also put on the record her shock over this.”

‘Completely unacceptable’

The incident happened on Monday at the trial of James Stewart Smyth, 57, who is accused of the double killing.

There has been a heavy police presence at Laganside courts during evidence from former Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) commander Gary Haggarty.

A small number of individuals sat at the back of the courtroom with their faces covered for a time.

It was not immediately drawn to the judge’s attention.

When it was, he warned anyone concealing their face would be removed from court.

Former Northern Ireland justice minister Claire Sugden said on Thursday that the appearance of the masked men was “completely unacceptable”.

She told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme that she welcomed the new review of the incident, adding: “It should not have been allowed to happen and definitely there needs to be something to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Lady Chief Justice, Dame Siobhan Keegan, later said she had “dealt with the matter appropriately”.

Justice Siobhan Keegan
Lady Chief Justice Siobhan Keegan said the appearance of masked men inside the court was unacceptable (Image: Courts NI)


However, she said the appearance of masked men inside the court was unacceptable and “should not have happened”.

She has asked the NI Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) to establish how it occurred.

It is an offence to refuse to remove a face covering if asked by police who believe a crime may be committed.

The police told BBC News NI there has been no repeat of Monday’s occurrence.

Chief Superintendent Darrin Jones said: “Police are aware of concerns raised after a group of males concealed their identity.

“At the first opportunity, in discussion with court staff, police made the judge aware of this.”

Police to remain present at court

Ch Supt Jones said the incident has not been repeated since and police are conscious that the current trial is sensitive and will continue to be present in court.

“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,” he added.

A spokesperson for NICTS said: “We have commenced a review to establish the details of the incident.

“Findings of the review will be shared and discussed with the Lady Chief Justice.”


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