Northern Ireland

Former UVF man Robert Stewart admits being alcoholic

A defendant wears a mask to conceal his identity as he arrives at court in Belfast ahead of the trial
Image caption A defendant wears a mask to conceal his identity as he arrives at court in Belfast ahead of the trial on Tuesday

A key witness in a major paramilitary trial in Belfast has admitted being an alcoholic and drug user who fled NI with money stolen from his parents.

Robert Stewart, 37, is giving evidence against alleged former Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) commander Mark Haddock and 13 other defendants.

It is the largest 'supergrass' trial for 25 years in Northern Ireland.

Fourteen men face 97 charges ranging from murder to hijacking. They deny the charges.

Former UVF man Mr Stewart is testifying for a second day.

He, along with his brother David, has turned state's evidence in return for a reduced sentence in pleading guilty to aiding and abetting the murder of leading UDA man Tommy English on Halloween night in 2000.

On Wednesday, he was cross-examined by Haddock's lawyer Frank O'Donoghue QC.

The lawyer pointed out discrepancies between what Mr Stewart said in police interviews in August 2008 and the evidence he gave in court on Tuesday.

Mr Stewart said when he handed himself in, he was nervous, under pressure and on prescription valium and had made some mistakes as a result.

However, he said he was "now telling it like it really was".

Mr O'Donoghue asked him why he was unable to recall specific details about the day in July 2008 when he and his brother fled the north Belfast estate they lived in.

Mr Stewart blamed his consumption of vodka that day and went on to add: "I have been an alcoholic all my life."

He then confessed to taking ecstasy tablets, cocaine, cannabis, LSD, glue and prescription valium in the past.

"The last few years I would have cut down a lot, but there were times I took a lot of drugs and alcohol," he said.

Mr Stewart told the lawyer that he and his brother fled to Scotland, then England before returning to Northern Ireland to spend a week in the seaside resort of Portrush.

He said there, they saw a newspaper advert for the Historical Enquiries Team and had decided to give themselves up.

"We wanted to make a clean break of it. We couldn't live with our lives anymore," he said.

He said they had funded the travel with £2,000 his brother stole from his parents' house, a theft he described as "terrible".

Mr Stewart has claimed Haddock planned and directed the murder of Mr English.

Mr O'Donoghue asked the witness if had he difficulty with his memory.

"Some parts," he replied. "Everybody has difficulty at some times. Large events I don't have any difficulty with."

Mr O'Donoghue accused Mr Stewart of fabricating his evidence that his client had plotted the shooting in a flat in the hours before the attack.

"I want to suggest to you that you have made that up, that's a cock and bull story and under no circumstances was Mr Haddock ever there (in the flat)," he said.

"Then I would say Mr Haddock is lying," Mr Stewart replied.

Image caption An artist's impression of the defendants and prison officers in the dock

Earlier, he gave evidence about an assault he said a number of the defendants took part in.

He said a former neighbour in the New Mossley estate was beaten by seven of the accused after getting into a row over loud music and criticism of the UVF.

Also in the morning, there was a request from one of the defence teams for Mr Justice Gillen to recuse himself and stand down as judge. He did not do so.

The trial began on Tuesday amid high security inside and outside the court.

Thirteen defendants are in the dock - Haddock has been separated, sitting outside the dock surrounded by prison officers.

Two of his co-accused, Darren Moore and Ronald Bowe, were previously charged with trying to murder Haddock in 2006, but charges were dropped when he refused to give evidence.

Both the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and UDA (Ulster Defence Association) are loyalist paramilitary groups responsible for the murder of hundreds of people during the troubles.

The 14 defendants are being represented by 24 barristers and eight firms of solicitors and the trial is expected to last for 11 weeks.

More on this story