08 March 2006

Pub meeting no teddy bears picnic: Orde

Belfast Telegraph

By Jonathan McCambridge
08 March 2006

Chief Constable Hugh Orde has defended the police operation against an alleged UDA show of strength following savage criticism in Belfast Crown Court.

Sir Hugh said the UDA were not "having a teddy bears' picnic" when police swooped and fired 70 CS gas canisters into the Alexandra bar during a planned operation last Thursday.

Earlier, a barrister had accused Sir Hugh of waging a "gladiatorial" public campaign against alleged terror boss Ihab Shoukri after the PSNI made an application to have his bail revoked.

Instead, Arthur Harvey QC claimed loyalists meeting in the bar were planning to bring an end to all UDA crime and violence.

Police arrested 17 men during the operation. Eleven have been charged with attempting to organise a meeting in support of the UDA and the rest released pending a report to the Public Prosecution Service.

One of these is Shoukri (31), currently on bail awaiting trial on two counts of UDA membership.

Shoukri sat in the dock yesterday as the court heard that police believe he has broken the spirit of his bail conditions because of his arrest in the bar.

Crown barrister Sheena Mehaffey said: "The Crown accepts that he was not in paramilitary clothing but the police view is that he is a senior member of the UDA in north Belfast.

"The spirit of the conditions of his bail prevent him from associating with members of the UDA/UFF."

However, defence barrister Arthur Harvey insisted his client had arrived in the bar moments before police swooped and that Shoukri was downstairs while the alleged UDA meeting was going on upstairs.

Police dispute this version of events arguing that Shoukri was found in a downstairs store with men who were dressed in paramilitary uniform.

Mr Harvey said: "It's somewhat ironic that the plea had been advanced by police that the individuals in the upstairs bar were involved in some sort of show of strength.

"In fact they were attending a meeting, the result of which was to announce the end of all criminal activities by the UDA. Police have documents to prove that.

"The Chief Constable has sought some sort of gladiatorial contest to pitch himself against the defendant."

Judge Tom Burgess reserved his ruling for 24 hours and Shoukri was allowed to leave the court.

Meanwhile, across the road in the High Court, three of the men charged by police after the bar raid were making successful bail applications.

Alan John McClean (19), Robert Joseph Neill (21), and 48-year-old John Davis - the owner of the Alexandra Bar - had been charged on Monday with assisting in arranging a meeting in support of the UDA.

During their bail application the court heard that in the bar police discovered balaclavas, gloves, bomber jackets and UDA flags.

Crown counsel David Hopley also said that police had seized a hand-written speech which was due to be read out during an event in the bar last Friday.

The speech described the UFF as a "well-oiled ruthless killing machine" but said "we must take our fight into the political arena".

Later at a Press conference, the Chief Constable responded to the criticism in court by saying: "We have continually objected to his (Shoukri's) bail. The conditions have been watered down over a period of time - that is a matter for the judges, not the police."

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