Northern Ireland Judge speaks out against intimidation as bail granted to four people over Ards feud

Grafitti displaying Judge Mark Hamill's name was spraypainted onto Newtownards Magistrates Court last month Credit: UTV

The resident judge in Newtownards, the town at the centre of the "vicious, ongoing and deadly…drug turf war," took the unique step of issuing a statement in open court ahead of bail applications for four people.

Threats were graffitied on the wall of the court house against District Judge Mark Hamill following a series of hearings were bail was refused. "Let me get this off my chest," District Judge Mark Hamill began, "I have significant concerns that there will be no return for trial before the end of 2023…the could languish in custody well into 2024."

"There have been two attacks on the court building in Ards, the first a threat to kill a named individual embroiled in this feud and that was bad enough but as a judge sitting in Ards, I had the temerity to remark upon that first attack, describing the painting of a threat to kill on the wall of this court as an attack on the rule of law in Ards. "It may well be that my remarks gave offence to some of the more sensitive souls involved in what the police have described as a drug turf war because following these remarks there was a second, more serious attack on this court. "If I gave offence by saying that an attack on the court substantially upped the ante, I can only say I must be doing something right.

"For the avoidance of doubt, I wish to make it clear that I regard drug dealers as preying on the community so I hope that no drug dealer has been left unoffended."

He said the matters before him, given what police had said, were of a seriousness which meant they would have to go before a Crown Court. "I have references from mothers and wives about the impact on families and I'm concerned abut so so given those concerns, I will hear applications for bail," concluded the judge. A short time later two men - brothers Curtis (24) and Ryan Johnston (29) from Weaver's Grange and Samuel Coulter (56) of Cambourne Mews and William McCormick (48) of Glenbrook Court. The Johnstons are charged with affray and assault of a man at Ards shopping centre and affray and making a threat to kill a second man in Donaghadee on 31 March this year. Coulter and McCormick are two of 14 defendants accused of affray and unlawful assembly on 6 April following what police have said as a "concerted show of strength" at Weavers Grange after a crowd of up to 60 men entered the estate and using ladders and hammers, ripped South East Antrim UDA signage from gable walls of three houses. Curtis Johnston went first and a police officer gave evidence that she was still objecting to bail due to fears of witness interference and further offences but defence solicitor Patrick Higgins argued that given the principle of parity coupled with the charges being on a joint enterprise basis, two of his co-accused had been granted High Court bail. DJ Hamill told him: "I do not care which side of the feud he is on, simply do not care - it's a vicious feud between rival drug gangs as far as I'm concerned." Granting bail in the sum of £500, the judge also attached a litany of conditions to Curtis Johnston's bail including a residency order, a curfew, tagging, barring him from Ards and North Down, no contact with witnesses or co-accused. Ryan Johnston was next and a prosecutor conceded that given Curtis Johnston was granted bail, he could be freed under the same conditions. Moving on to the cases against Coulter and McCormick, the PPS lawyer conceded that with 14 defendants in that aspect of the feud "I would be surprised if the committal [to the crown court] was this side of Christmas given the number of defendants and the preparation of the papers." Coulter's defence KC John Larkin cross examined the detective who said he was still objecting to bail, suggesting that in the Weavers Grange incident "police liaised with Mr Coulter and he cooperated in using his good offices to ensure it was peaceful". The senior barrister further suggested that "in the past the police have liaised with Mr Coulter and he has been involved in a community anti drugs programme" and the officer conceded "I don't dispute that." The officer further agreed that Coulter, a former UDR soldier, has no drug convictions but before Mr Larkin could go any further, DJ Hamill cut him off, outlining that "the same remarks apply" from the previous case. Granting bail in the same terms as the Johnston's, the judge warned that any defendant granted bail "better cling to bail conditions like limpets". "The only reason they're getting bail is because the lapse of time will be massive before they get to trial," said DJ Hamill who warned that "anybody who breaches any conditions of bail and comes back before me, their bail will end so cling to bail conditions like limpets." Mr Larkin highlighted that Coulter "owns a confectionary shop" in Ards so asked if he could be allowed into the town during business hours to look after his shop but DJ Hamill told him to make arrangements with the police "so that Mr Coulter can get to his sweetie shop." All four cases were taken to 30 August.

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