Loyalist in wheelchair charged with Troubles murders released on bail

Loyalist in wheelchair charged with Troubles murders released on bail
Published 06/06/2016

A wheelchair-bound veteran loyalist has been released on bail after appearing in court charged with two Troubles murders.

Winston “Winkie” Rea is accused of murdering John Benedict Devine in the Fallswater Street area of West Belfast on July 23 1989, and John Joseph Gerard O’Hara in the Dunluce Avenue area of South Belfast on April 17 1991.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard the 65-year-old from Springwell Crescent in Groomsport, Co Down faces a total of 12 charges for offences allegedly carried out between 1971 and 1991.

Police Service of Northern Ireland Detective Inspector Neil McGuinness said he believed he could connect the accused.

Rea was interviewed by police some 32 times and made no admissions, according to his defence lawyer.

He made a statement of denial in his final interview, the lawyer added.

Grey-haired Rea, who was dressed in a dark suit with red checked open neck shirt was pushed into the dock in a wheelchair.

He suffers from a raft of ailments, the court was told.

Only one charge, membership of the proscribed Red Hand Commando, was read out and when asked if he understood what was being said, Rea tapped tapped his ear signalling that he could not hear.

The loyalist was moved further into the dock where he pressed his ear against the toughened glass.

The charge was put a second time and he nodded.

Throughout the brief hearing, the high profile loyalist held on to the dock and listened intently, occasionally glancing up towards the public gallery where relatives were seated in the public gallery.

Just a few seats away were relations of both alleged victims.

A prosecutor said bail was agreed subject to strict conditions including surrendering his passport to the court, residing at a known address and notifying police if he is away from his home address for more than 24 hours.

District Judge Fiona Bagnall released Rea on his own bail of £500 and adjourned the case until August 1.

The judge also excused Rea from his next court appearance because of his failing health.

A fresh investigation into the two deaths was prompted by information contained on tapes the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) obtained from Boston College in the US.

In 2001, the college in Massachusetts commenced a five-year oral history project aimed at documenting perspectives on the Troubles from those involved in the conflict.

Former paramilitaries, both republican and loyalist, were interviewed about their roles in the 40 years of violence which blighted Northern Ireland on the understanding that their accounts would not be made public until after their deaths.

But subsequent court rulings in the US rendered that undertaking useless after the PSNI was awarded custody of the tapes for investigative purposes.