Northern Ireland

Decision to deny Philip Johnston a gun licence 'proper'

A Belfast estate agent was properly denied a gun licence due to his alleged links with loyalist paramilitaries, a High Court judge has ruled.

Philip Johnston was challenging the refusal of a firearms certificate over suspected links with murdered Ulster Defence Association chief Jim Gray.

Lawyers for Mr Johnston argued it was irrational to withhold a permit.

They said he was forced to have limited dealings with Gray as part of the price for operating in east Belfast.

It was also alleged that the flamboyant UDA commander, who was shot dead in October 2005, was a police informer.

Mr Johnston previously held a gun licence for 20 years, using it for clay pigeon shooting and other recreational pursuits.

Denied

The certificate was relinquished following his arrest in 2005 as part of an investigation into alleged money laundering involving Gray.

All charges against Mr Johnston were subsequently withdrawn, clearing him of any suspicion of wrongdoing.

He launched judicial review proceedings after an application to renew it in 2011 was denied by the chief constable. That decision was upheld on appeal to the Secretary of State.

The reason for the refusal was the estate agent's alleged association with Gray and two other suspected paramilitaries.

Mr Johnston denies any paramilitary links and says his dealings with the UDA leader amounted to renting out a flat.

It was set out how Gray, reviled in the community for his lifestyle, was a menacing figure who forced himself on the estate agent.

Frank O'Donoghue QC, for Mr Johnston, contended there was no evidence this information, provided by his client during police interviews, was taken into account during the decision-making process.

He said: "This decision of the chief constable, rubber-stamped on appeal by the Secretary of State, is fundamentally deficient to the point where this court could not be satisfied the decision has been made rationally."

Mr O'Donoghue also claimed Gray's alleged position as a police agent was relevant to the case.

Social

"It should be a matter of grave significance not only to the chief constable but to the court that this man appeared to be an informer over a period of time in which he conducted his criminal activities on the Newtownards Road," he said.

"That damages entirely the validity of any finding of association, particularly one where the person alleged to be an associate has given a very clear explanation in the course of interviews."

But Adrian Colmer, responding for the Secretary of State, claimed Mr Johnston's dealings with Gray went beyond renting out one flat.

He told the court the two men had a social relationship involving dinner and lunch meetings.

The estate agent was also involved with others in a £250,000 deal to buy the Avenue One bar from Gray, the court heard.

Mr Colmer said Mr Johnston's alleged association involved two other UDA men, arguing that it could not be portrayed as a forced relationship.

Gray's supposed informer status was irrelevant, he added.

With police neither confirming nor denying the claim, the barrister pointed out that any associate would also be in the dark.

"It doesn't touch upon the quality of the relationship at all," he said.

Rejecting Mr Johnston's case, the judge held that it was based on a number of factually false assumptions.

Mr Justice Treacy said: "This decision, refusing a firearms certificate to someone who, by his own admission, associated with a number of members of a proscribed organisation, could not under any circumstances in my view, and certainly not in this case, be characterised as irrational and must be dismissed."

Legal costs were also awarded against Mr Johnston