The end of a loyalist ‘supergrass’ trial, which saw twelve alleged unionist paramilitaries cleared of the murder of UDA leader Tommy English in 2000, has again raised fresh question marks over the credibility of the so-called ‘justice system’ in the North of Ireland.
The biggest and most expensive case of its kind in years -- with the bill expected to be in excess of ten million pounds -- ended with just one relatively minor conviction.
As the stream of notorious loyalists walked jauntily from Belfast Crown Court on Wednesday, a blame game began to play out between the Six County Minister for Justice David Ford, Crown prosecutors, and the PSNI police.
The trial was prompted by ‘Operation Ballast’, which uncovered deep and ongoing collusion between the PSNI (and formerly the RUC) with the notorious Mount Vernon gang, a powerful UVF death squad in north Belfast.
Justice campaigner Raymond McCord said he was “disgusted”, but vowed to fight on to secure justice for his son, who was also murdered by the Mount Vernon gang, reportedly on the orders of Mark Haddock himself. McCord’s quest for justice led to the original unprecedented investigation by the then Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, into the role of police agents within the UVF in north Belfast.
Fears had grown over the years that the trial would be ‘spiked’ as both the UVF and the Crown forces deeply opposed efforts to expose the truth behind the Mount Vernon gang.
A threat by the UVF to return to violence if the trial led to convictions was linked to an elaborate bomb hoax outside a Catholic girls’ school in north Belfast on Wednesday morning.
But the real hoax had already taken place at Belfast Crown Court.
The use of ‘supergrasses’ -- insiders turned accusers -- is normally almost exclusively against republican groups, such as Raymond Gilmore (against the INLA, in 1983), Eamon Collins (against the Provisional IRA, in 1985), and David Rupert (against the Real IRA, in 2000).
Republicans had long doubted that a pro-British justice system in the North would accept the evidence of a supergrass against well-connected British agents such as Mark Haddock.
The transfer of Operation Ballast from the relatively independent Historical Enquiries Team to the deeply implicated PSNI, almost two years ago, confirmed doubts among the gang’s victims that justice would be served.
The evidence presented by brothers Robert and Ian Stewart, over the unprecedented 21-week course of the trial was confused, and te ‘supergrasses’ were clearly unprepared for cross-examination.
When it became clear early on that neither the prosecution nor the defence had any interest in calling to the stand the Crown Force handlers of the various double-agents and informers, the judge’s decision appeared inevitable.
Freeing the gang on Wednesday, Justice Gillen blamed the two brothers who he said had been “flatly contradicted by unchallenged independent evidence throughout the process.”
Even the defence lawyers could not understand the PSNI’s apparent disinterest in securing a prosecution in the trial.
“The PSNI had a gung-ho attitude to this case,” said John Greer, legal representative of one of the accused.
“It’s difficult to understand how the PSNI and PPS (prosecution service) at an early stage could not have seen that their witness evidence was highly suspect and unreliable.”
Outside the court, Ken Wilkinson of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the UVF, admitted the case was a “show trial”.
So-called ‘Minister for Justice’ David Ford denied he had a role to play in the aftermath of the verdict. When prosecutors suggested the two supergrasses should face charges, Mr Ford said: “That is an issue for the PPS not an issue for the Minister of Justice.”
Commenting on the verdict, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said: that at the outset of the process, his party had raised “serious concerns” about the decision to proceed with a supergrass trial and the quality of this PSNI investigation.
“This process has done nothing to bring truth and closure to the victims families of the Mount Vernon UVF,” he said.
“Regardless of these verdicts what is beyond any doubt is that Mark Haddock was a British State Agent who controlled, manipulated and directed the entire UVF operation in Mount Vernon. They were allowed to kill with impunity for many years.
“What has not happened through this trial has been any shining of light on those who handled Mark Haddock and other agents within the Mount Vernon UVF and their complicity in many killings and other UVF activity carried out during that period.
“What the families of the victims need is truth and closure. What we don’t need is another debacle created by the use of a discredited supergrass system.”
UVF MURDER BID
In a separate incident this week, a leading UVF figure, Stephen ‘Mackers’ Matthews, survived an apparent assassination attempt in east Belfast. The motivation behind the attack remains unclear, but it is thought to have involved a dispute among the UVF leadership.
The attack took place as Matthews gotout of his car at about 1.20am on Saturday but the shot missed. After missing his target with his first shot, the gunman ran after him and tried to shoot again but his gun jammed. The gunman then made off on foot.
Matthews is considered the most formidable and dangerous loyalist leaders in east Belfast. Reports suggested the UVF kingpin may have somehow incurred the wrath of the organisation’s leadership based in the Shankill area of the city.