Northern Ireland

Blackmail witness 'being targeted by dissidents'

Dissident republicans plan to attack a key witness in a blackmail case, a Belfast court has been told.

Members of the Continuity IRA are also said to be gathering intelligence on the alleged victim's sister.

The claims were made as police opposed bail for a man accused of blackmailing a young Belfast businessman.

John Clarke, 35, of Ardglen Place in Belfast, is accused of demanding money with menaces on 15 and 17 September this year.

The court was told that he had been involved in a plan to extort £8,500 from the alleged victim, who is now in a witness protection programme, and cannot be named by order of the court.

Mr Clarke's solicitor said his client would claim that he had simply been trying to arrange the repayment of a debt, and no threats had been made.

He said the accused had met Witness A - as he is now known - in a car park beside his workplace on 15 September.

At that meeting, Witness A agreed to pay the money back and it was handed over at a subsequent rendezvous in the Markets area of Belfast, he said.

The court was told police approached Witness A four days later and he agreed to co-operate with them.

Three men have now appeared in court charged with the alleged blackmail.

Opposing bail, a detective said Mr Clarke was considered by the PSNI to be a member of an organised crime gang; that he had the ability to have an influence on public order and that there was a danger he might interfere with Witness A.

He said detectives also had intelligence that the Continuity IRA intends to "take action" against Witness A; that it intends to try and "discredit him" and that dissident republicans were "actively trying to get information" on his sister.

The district judge said that on the evidence before her, she felt there was a strong likelihood of witness interference and she remanded the accused in custody.