Three in court over loyalist gathering in east Belfast

Three men have appeared in court charged in connection with a mass gathering seen to be a loyalist show of strength in east Belfast. Credit: Pacemaker

Up to 60 masked men allegedly took part in a "display of sinister force" linked to the UVF in east Belfast, a court has heard.

The suspected show of strength resulted in nearly a dozen people taking shelter in a community centre for eight days, prosecutors claimed.

Details emerged as three men were remanded in custody accused of involvement in the gathering near Pitt Park on 2 February.

Stephen Matthews, 58, Derek Lammey, 56, and David Robert Matthews, 34, are jointly charged with unlawful assembly and affray.

Police launched an investigation as footage circulated on social media appeared to show a large group of men with faces covered walking through the area.

Stephen Matthews, of Pansy Street in Belfast; Lammey, from Spring Place in the city; and David Matthews, of Millreagh in Dundonald were arrested during raids on Wednesday morning.

All three appeared remotely at Belfast Magistrates' Court over their alleged roles.

Prosecution counsel Natalie Pinkerton said the case against them centres on identification evidence.

She told the court neighbourhood police officers saw between 50 and 60 men in the area, apparently organised and there for a common purpose.

At one stage a member of the public pulled up in a "distressed and fearful" state and pointed in the direction of the crowd, the court heard.

It was alleged that Stephen Matthews was spotted near the front of the group "displaying a leadership role".

Even though masks were being worn, the prosecutor contended that all three defendants were identified by build and facial recognition.

She said up to 11 people, including children, were drawn to the nearby Ballymac Centre for safety - remaining there until 10 February.

District Judge Fiona Bagnall was told police believe the group of men is linked to the East Belfast UVF.

Opposing bail, Ms Pinkerton argued that the wearing of masks was "highly indicative of those involved clearly knowing this was unlawful activity".

She added: "This involved a display of sinister force."

With none of the three accused charged with any paramilitary offences, defence lawyers challenged the strength of the evidence against them.

Barrister Richard McConkey, for Stephen Matthews, said no face coverings or clothing to match the alleged description was discovered at his client's home.

"This case has been all over the news, there have been politicians getting involved with complaints about how police dealt with it, and then mysteriously a number of arrests are made," he submitted.

Michael Chambers, representing David Matthews, argued that the alleged UVF connection should be disregarded.

"The court simply cannot take account of claims in the community that someone may or may not be a member of an organisation," counsel insisted.

Bail was refused for all three defendants, however, due to the risk of re-offending and interfering with the course of justice.

Mrs Bagnall remanded them in custody, to appear again by video-link on 19 March 19.