A claim by the Independent Monitoring Commission that the murder of Michael O’Hare in March 2003 was paramilitary may lead to the collapse of the case against the man accused of the murder.
O’Hare, a Catholic, died after a fire at his flat in Bangor. Two days later, Colin Martin Bell was charged with the murder.
The IMC, set up to adjudicate on paramilitary ceasefires, stunned the family last week by including the murder in its report on unionist paramilitary killings.
The PSNI ruled out paramilitary involvement. It is due to be tried in front of a jury at the Crown Court in Downpatrick. Paramilitary murders are tried in non-jury Diplock courts.
However, the lawyer who represents Bell will tomorrow begin proceedings to try to have the trial stopped. “There is a real risk that a jury could be prejudiced by the IMC report and the publicity which has arisen as a result of it,” said Joe Rice. “We will be looking for an abuse of process application.”
Bell is on remand in the non-paramilitary wing of Maghaberry prison. Rice said his client has “psychiatric issues and learning disabilities.”
It emerged last week that the IMC had neither consulted the family nor informed them in advance that its report would say the murder was paramilitary. The victim’s mother, Angela Noble, said she was “stunned” and “very annoyed” at the claim.
“Where did the IMC get this information? The police never said it was paramilitary,” she said.
The family’s solicitor, Adrian Travers, said the report had caused “considerable distress” to the family, and he is demanding that the IMC reveal the source of its claim. “We are looking at a number of legal options,” he said. “In the first instance, we are looking for an explanation.”
The PSNI said this weekend it believed the murder may have been sectarian, but that it was not paramilitary.
The IMC initially refused to comment on the reaction to its report by O’Hare’s family. However, following criticism from all four of the North’s main political parties, Lord John Alderdice, one of the four men on the IMC, said in a BBC interview that the commission was “saddened” by any hurt it might have caused by “revealing things that hadn’t previously been known.”
In an apparent conciliatory gesture, Lord Alderdice admitted that the commission did not “always get everything right”.
“We do not proclaim that we are infallible and always get everything right. We are just trying to do our best in these regards,” he said during an interview with the BBC on Saturday.
The O’Hare family of rejected Alderdice’s comments as “falling far short of an apology”.
The family’s lawyers are sending a formal letter to the IMC to demand a full public apology and to know the source of their information.
“There are many unanswered questions, not least why the police are saying the exact opposite of what the IMC are saying,” said Travers.