There was widespread shock this week after it was confirmed that loyalist Special Branch double agent Gary Haggarty could be freed within weeks despite pleading guilty to five murders, five attempted murders and hundreds of other crimes.
A 35-year jail term was reduced to six-and-a-half years for his support of the British state and agreeing to give evidence. But despite working as a paid police informer for 11 years, a prosecution using his testimony is only set to go ahead in one case.
With time served on remand, Haggarty is now eligible to appear before parole board hearing which could secure his immediate release.
Haggarty committed hundreds of offences alongside the unionist paramilitary UVF in the period from 1991 to 2007. His murder victims included innocent Catholic workmen Eamon Fox and Gary Convie, killed as they had lunch together in a car in north Belfast in 1994.
Mr Fox’s son Kieran said he felt let down.
“What is justice in this country? It is just designed to look after the criminal,” he said.
“How can a man convicted of that many crimes be set free? The man is a serial killer, he was a paid state informer, he was allowed to kill at will, police knew he was killing at will and let it continue.”
He added: “You live by the sword, you die by the sword.
“All the families here today did not ask to be here, we were dragged into this through no fault of their own. The police could have prevented us being here today but did not, they were prepared to look after a criminal, a terrorist, back him.
“It just seems life in this jurisdiction here, you are dispensable, it doesn’t matter, get on with it.”
Also killed was grandfather Sean McParland, who was shot dead by Haggarty in front of his children simply to protect his position as an informer. To “prove himself” to fellow gang members and avoid suspicion that he was an informer, Haggarty volunteered to take the lead role in the murder. He shot Mr McParland at close range in the chest.
Haggarty’s murder victims also included John Harbinson, who was beaten to death with a hammer by a UVF gang in North Belfast in May 1997 -- afterwards Haggarty went and had a drink in a nearby house -- and Sean McDermott, a 37-year-old Catholic found shot dead in his car near Antrim in August 1994.
Prosecutors have claimed Haggarty’s evidence is insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction against 11 other suspected loyalist paramilitaries and the “police intelligence officers” who directed his actions.
Andree Murphy of Relatives for Justice said he trial and sentencing of Haggarty gave scant attention to the actions of the RUC/PSNI, and why they failed to prevent or actively assisted in the targeting of individuals.
“It seems perverse that Haggarty’s evidence is good enough to convict him, and potentially other loyalists, but deemed to fall short when it comes to RUC Special Branch Officers,” she said.
In a statement, Niall Murphy of the Kevin Winters law firm said their clients feared that “the entire process has been stage managed and directed to ensure that no prosecutions were ever brought -- the fundamental premise underpinning that guarantee, being the fact that state agents and employees are a species protected from prosecution.”
He particularly condemned the failure to prosecute the attempted murder of John Flynn, even though the PSNI had paid him compensation for the RUC’s role in two attacks, and excoriated the use of a sick note by a member of the Special Branch to successfully avoid other prosecutions. He said it was the most concerning decision not to prosecute a case in court since the murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan.
He added: “What of the role of the two Registered Informants who accompanied Haggarty to Skegoneill Avenue to commit the murder [of Sean McParland], and the other Registered Informant who prepared the second getaway car. Or indeed the role of the Registered Informant who selected the house for the murderous attack and perhaps most concerningly the roles of Haggarty’s Special Branch handlers who he asserts were directing him on a murderous rampage of terrorism to fulfil Special Branch’s own intelligence interests and security ambitions for the north Belfast UVF?”
Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney last night said the families of those killed and injured by Haggarty had “received neither truth nor justice”.
“This reduced sentence means that he is effectively getting away with murder,” he said.”But families are also being denied the truth around allegations that Haggarty’s RUC Special Branch may have ignored warnings about murder and may have covered up his involvement in murders and attempted murders over many years.”