Witnesses to Belfast loyalist show of strength withdraw cooperation with prosecution, court told

Police at the scene in Pitt Park in east Belfast.

Some witnesses to an alleged loyalist show of strength in east Belfast are no longer cooperating with the prosecution, a court has been told.

Counsel for one of the men accused of leading a gathering of up to 60 masked men at Pitt Park last year claimed civilians have withdrawn their assistance.

The development came as a judge agreed to remove the curfew and electronic monitoring imposed on 59-year-old Stephen Matthews.

Matthews, of Pansy Street in the city, denies charges of unlawful assembly and affray in connection with the high-profile incident on February 2, 2021. Two other men are accused of the same offences.

The group of masked men were believed to be linked to the East Belfast UVF, prosecutors have claimed.

Previous courts heard disputed claims that 11 people living in the area fled their homes and sheltered in a nearby community centre for up to eight days.

Matthews played a leadership role as the men headed into Pitt Park with faces covered by scarves and hoods, it was contended.

He has been on bail under strict conditions which include a night-time curfew, tagging and an exclusion zone.

Seeking a relaxation of those terms, defence barrister Emma Little-Pengelly told Belfast Magistrates’ Court the case related to a “street protest”.

She argued that a change in circumstances meant the conditions were no longer required.

“The PPS (Public Prosecution Service) indicated last week that civilian witnesses were no longer cooperating,” counsel said.

Even though anyone reluctant to give evidence could still be subpoenaed, Ms Little-Pengelly contended there is no longer a risk in allowing her client back into the prohibited area.

“There’s simply no motivation for the accused to speak to or approach any of these civilian witnesses,” she submitted.

The court heard Matthews wanted the terms eased so that he can provide care for his elderly parents.

Opposing the application, a police officer claimed there remains a risk of interference with the investigation.

But Deputy District Judge Philip Mateer confirmed that Matthews’ curfew and electronic monitoring are to be removed.

“He has abided by the conditions, and if he were minded to (interfere with witnesses) he had daylight hours to do it,” Mr Mateer explained.

Maintaining the exclusion area, however, he added: “I’m not persuaded that the imposition of a special route to his parents house is such an interference with his human rights that it is disproportionate.”