A former Irish soldier and his co-accused, due to stand trial accused of being dissident republican gunmen, claim an alleged murder bid on a trainee police officer was “a prank”.

The 28-year-old ex-soldier – Gerard James McManus, from Fernhill in Letterkenny – and 35-year-old Kevin Barry Nolan, from Main Street in Blacklion, deny attempted murder.

They were detained by undercover police, during a shooting incident in the border town of Garrison in Co Fermanagh on 21 November 2009.

Both are also charged with possession of a gun with intent to endanger life, while McManus also faces a further charge of using a gun to resist arrest.

But the pair say they only meant to scare the young policeman and that they were put up to “the prank” by a police agent.

Both men were set for trial on Tuesday, after a preliminary hearing at Enniskillen Magistrates’ Court came to an unexpected end.

It had been thought the hearing would last until Friday of this week – but only one witness, a detective constable, gave evidence before the proceedings became embroiled in a legal argument over what questions defence lawyers could ask.

After an adjournment, Nolan’s barrister Mark Reel said he no longer required any other witnesses to give evidence in the case – a position adopted by McManus’ solicitor.

Mr Reel told District Judge Mervyn Bates that, given his ruling, the defence were prevented from probing the nature of the operation that led to the arrest of the accused, the issue of any cross-border involvement, or that of the involvement of any informer.

The defence then couldn’t ask any witness “to address the issue of entrapment”, he said.

Prosecution lawyer David Russell successfully applied for the two men to be returned for trial, on the grounds that the evidence of all other witnesses on the papers amounted to a prima facie case against them.

The judge, who remanded both men back into custody – after granting them each legal aid certificates for two counsel – returned them for trial to Belfast Crown Court. A date has yet to be fixed.

This was the fourth such preliminary hearing into the case, to determine if the accused should be sent for trial before a Diplock Judge sitting alone without a jury.

At an earlier hearing, the court heard that McManus and Nolan were allegedly spotted in a Vauxhall Astra approaching the student officer’s home.

McManus, wearing a balaclava, allegedly went to the front door while Nolan remained in the front passenger seat of the Astra before police moved in.

It was put to the court that McManus escaped and ran down the side of the house, firing off a shot, but that Nolan was apprehended in the Astra – sitting on a magazine loaded with 16 rounds for a Glock pistol.

McManus was apprehended at 8am the next day in a garden shed, but – while a mask and gloves were found in the shed – no gun was recovered.

During interviews, both men maintained they had no intention of harming the student police officer.

McManus told detectives: “There was no way I was going to shoot him … I was going to fire a couple of shots in the air … to scare him, wanted to terrify him like.”

In his interviews, Nolan – whose alleged role was to give McManus directions – claimed that as far as he was concerned: “No harm was going to be caused”, and that firing the gun was to “put the frighteners on him”.

Lawyers for the men told the court at the earlier hearing that their clients had been “entrapped” by a person known to the authorities both in the Six Counties and the Republic and it was he who had “coerced, cajoled” them into getting involved.

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