RELATIVES of the victims of Northern Ireland?s worst terrorist atrocity angrily criticised the barrister defending the only person to be charged with the murders after he halted the trial yesterday on its first day because of ill-health.
Orlando Pownall, QC, representing Sean Hoey, 37, an electrician from South Armagh, told Mr Justice Weir that he had risen from his sick bed to travel to Belfast from England only out of respect for the court and to plead for an adjournment.
Mr Hoey is charged with the murders of 29 people in the Omagh bombing in 1998.
During tense exchanges with the judge, who expressed his frustration at the late request to delay one of the biggest murder trials in British legal history, Mr Pownall said that he hoped to have recovered sufficiently by September 18.
He said: ?I am unwell. I appear before you against medical advice.?
As 40 relatives of the victims of the Real IRA bombing of Omagh, Co Tyrone, watched in astonishment and anger, Mr Pownall ? who led the prosecution case against Barry George, who was found guilty in 2001 of the murder of the BBC presenter Jill Dando ? said that he had been in bed since August 26 with an illness and was awaiting the results of a second set of blood tests.
At one stage Mr Justice Weir accused the barrister of making a fatuous suggestion after Mr Pownall had argued that he was not asking for the case ?to be kicked into the long grass?.
Clearly angered by the late application for an adjournment, Mr Justice Weir said: ?I do urge the defence to get to grips with the situation, review the position earlier rather than later and to come forward with some practical suggestion as to how we should proceed.?
Mr Pownall admitted that he could not give a guarantee that he would be fit in time for the trial to proceed on September 18. If he was unable, that would place his client in ?an invidious position . . . Mr Hoey will have to make some decisions,? he said.
Mr Pownall apologised to the judge, telling him: ?Throughout this case, since Mr Hoey?s arrest in September 2003, he, more than anybody else, has wanted the case to proceed as swiftly as possible. At no stage has any adjournment been applied for on his behalf.?
He said that he had no objection to the Crown opening its case and added that the complexities of the case meant it would be an ?insurmountable task? for another senior counsel to be brought in with ten days to read the evidence.
After Gordon Kerr, QC, for the prosecution, expressed no objection to the adjournment, Mr Justice Weir instructed the defence to keep him fully briefed.
The defendant nodded when asked by the judge to confirm his name and sat purse-lipped throughout the courtroom exchanges.
Outside the court Laurence Rush, whose wife, Libby, was killed in the explosion, said that he had confronted Mr Pownall as they left in the same lift. ?I told him, ?You are an absolute disgrace. You are sick but I am a sick man too. You allowed us to appear here and now this?.
?He just bowed his head and said he was sorry, but it?s outrageous. It wasn?t easy for us to come here today.?
Michael Gallagher, whose son, Aiden, was among the victims, said: ?There is utter disbelief. We came here having psyched ourselves up for this day, only to find there?s been a false start.?
Mr Gallagher said he feared that the trial would now be pushed back into next year. ?I think the judge was put into a very difficult situation,? he said.
He added that one woman had to be helped out of court after seeing Mr Hoey for the first time.