Is the Supergrass tactic in Northern Ireland evidence of a failed state?

Posted By: January 31, 2018

Sean McCann. The Herald.Scotland. Monday, January 29, 2018

Sean McCann, Founding partner and former consultant in Criminal Law in the firm of McCann and McCann Solicitors, Belfast.

EMOTIONS were raised, and old wounds opened when, Gary Haggarty, in return for a reduced sentence, agreed to give evidence against his former UVF colleagues.

He had been a paid police informer for eleven years.

Haggerty had admitted to five murders, five attempted murders, 23 counts of conspiracy to murder and directing terrorism.

He had also pleaded guilty to 301 lesser offenses.

During the course of interviews and turning state witness, he provided information on 55 Loyalist murders and 20 attempted murders in his 1015 police interviews.

READ MORE: Ex-UVF chief Gary Haggarty who turned informer given six and a half years

The information given to the police implicated many of Haggarty’s former colleagues and, in effect, he became Northern Ireland’s most recent supergrass.

The use of supergrasses by Northern Ireland’s Prosecution Service began in the 1980s, and in the four years to 1985 an estimated 27 supergrasses agreed to testify against 600 Republican and Loyalist suspects.

These charges were heard before a single judge without a jury, and in the first Supergrass trials, nine out of ten defendants were found guilty.

In most cases, there was no corroborative evidence.

The Supergrass system was undermined in the late 80s when the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal, and in particular Lord Justice Lowry, acquitted many of the defendants.

READ MORE: Ex-UVF chief Gary Haggarty who turned informer given six and a half years

His judgment poured scorn on the use of Supergrasses and the system subsequently remained dormant for 25 years.

Despite the collapse of the system, the Supergrasses were immune from prosecution and were given new identities.

The system was resurrected again in 2011 with the introduction of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act in 2005 (SOCPA).

Under SOCPA the ‘assisting offender’ (supergrass) was not given immunity from prosecution but was guaranteed a significantly reduced sentence.

The fact that the defendant’s failure to speak during the interview could be accepted as corroborative evidence also influenced the return of the Supergrass system.

Mary O’Rawe, a Law lecturer in the University of Ulster, has asked whether the return of Supergrass cases is ‘Deja Vu’ or ‘Supergrass Lite’ – when comparing the different prosecutions now existing in the system to those in the 1980s.

READ MORE: Ex-UVF chief Gary Haggarty who turned informer given six and a half years

Yesterday Belfast Crown Court sentenced Haggarty with a tariff of six-and-a-half years for his numerous and serious offenses, but it appears now that only one person will be prosecuted as a result of his evidence.

Looking at this case and the questionable benefits to society, one might ponder on whether the Supergrass system should be assessed by legal niceties or whether historical offenses prosecuted in this manner will cause confusion in the justice system – and might be perceived ultimately as the product of a failed state.