A purpose-built ‘supergrass’ unit is to be constructed inside Maghaberry Prison in the North of Ireland following a decision to revive the policy of using informers’ evidence in courts.
The use of so-called supergrasses has returned following new legislation, sparking widespread concerns.
The recent double murder conviction of unionist paramilitary Steven Brown, also known as `Revels’, on the word of his co-accused was the first such trial in the North in decades.
Although the supergrass trials of the 1980s were ultimately discredited, the new legislation saw Brown receive a 30-year jail term for the barbaric murder of the two teenagers.
He was conviced largely on the evidence of former associate Mark Burcombe. Burcombe had a charge of murder against him reduced to grievous bodily harm in return for his testimony.
Despite the conviction, David McIlwaine’s father Paul was critical of the use of the new legislation against his son’s murderer.
“I have no problem with the new legislation or with the use of the legislation but I do have a serious issue with how it was used in this case,” he said.
“I still feel there was enough evidence to convict both Brown and Burcombe of murder without the need to resort to giving out prosecution immunity.”
Mr McIlwaine said the legislation stated that to be eligible for immunity a person has to give a true account of their role and also any previous criminal offences.
“Burcombe didn’t do that. He covered up his own part in the boys murders. The only person who gained from his testimony was him. It certainly wasnt his victims families.
“He saved his own skin and now he will be given a new life and a new identity while we are left without justice having been completed.”
An increase in IRA activity during the 1981 Republican hunger strikes first moved the British government to turn to the supergrass trial.
Evidence provided by informers in return for immunity from prosecution led to some of the most prominent court cases in Irish legal history.
Mass trials, heard by a judge sitting without a jury in the ‘Diplock courts’, led to the wholesale imprisonment of republicans, and solely on the word of often highly paid informants.
Between 1981 and 1985 supergrass trials became a common occurrence in Belfasts Crumlin Road courthouse. In 1982 alone evidence given by 25 loyalist and republican informers was used to jail more than 600 suspects.
Among the most famous cases was that of Christopher Black, a north Belfast IRA man turned “Queen’s evidence”.
Throughout the 120-day trial, senior Crown Court judge Basil Kelly wore a bullet-proof vest and was flanked by two RUC men armed with automatic rifles.
When he travelled to London to prepare his verdict the SAS gave him 24-hour protection.
On August 5 1983, 22 supposed members of the Provisional IRA were sentenced to a total of more than 4,000 years in prison based solely on Black’s testimonies.
The former IRA man was placed in the witness protection programme and has never been seen or heard of since.
The new supergrass unit at Maghaberry will include 16 cells. The unit will cost several million pounds because of the need for increased security measures to protect the informers from other prisoners, including special kitchen facilities to guard against the poisoning of food.