Northern Ireland

Who are the Belfast 'supergrass' brothers?

Artists impression of Robert Stewart
Image caption Robert Stewart is giving evidence against his alleged former UVF colleagues

Belfast brothers Robert and Ian Stewart are the key witnesses in Northern Ireland's largest paramilitary trial for 25 years.

In the summer of 2008, they packed one bag between them, drank a bottle of vodka, fled their homes in north Belfast and caught a ferry to Scotland.

Between them, the two loyalist paramilitaries had £2,000 in cash, stolen from their disabled parents.

Much of it was later spent on alcohol.

Robert Stewart, 37, has been an alcoholic most of his life and was a habitual drug user. He took ecstasy tablets, cocaine, cannabis, acid and glue. He also used to take 60mg a day of prescription valium.

On the trip to Scotland, he drank mostly cider.

Eleven days later, the Stewart brothers walked into a police station and confessed their part in a brutal, paramilitary murder - the shooting of loyalist Tommy English in front of his wife, young daughter and twin sons.

Fast forward three years and the two self-confessed UVF men have now agreed to give evidence at Belfast Crown Court against nine other men they say were in the same gang, and also involved in the killing.

In legal terms, they are "assisting offenders". On the streets of Belfast, they are a "supergrass".

During that 11-day period back in 2008, they criss-crossed the UK, going from Scotland to England and eventually back to Northern Ireland via Stansted Airport.

Rather than go home to Belfast, they went to the seaside town of Portrush, close to the Giants Causeway.

By the time they arrived, it was too late to find anywhere to stay. They spent the night on the beach, in sand dunes.

"We were lying there freezing," said Robert Stewart. "There was nowhere open."

He was speaking while giving evidence at the start of the trial. His older brother Ian, also known as David, 41, has yet to give evidence.

The details of their 11-day trip around the UK came from Robert.

He was asked by one of the defence barristers, Frank O'Donoghue QC, why the brothers had decided to hand themselves into the police?

"We couldn't live with our lives any more," he said.

"It's not easy to live with all that sort of stuff."

"Clean break"

Robert Stewart joined the UVF in his early 20s. As a teenager, he was a keen Liverpool fan and worked in a butcher's shop. But he soon gave it up.

Although he claimed unemployment benefit, he admitted to the court he "did the double" by working as a part-time window-cleaner. He usually worked three days each week, for just 3-4 hours and normally with a hangover.

He had a lot of girlfriends. "Most of them were on and off", he said.

One of them came to see him when he went to Portrush, the weekend before he handed himself in to the police.

Asked if it was a "wild" weekend, he said it was "more of a nervous weekend".

He said the decision to take the train to Antrim, then go to the local police station and confess to taking part in a murder was "monumental".

Even though he wanted to make a "clean break", he admitted in court that initially he did not tell the whole truth in police interviews.

He lied about some of the details surrounding the murder, to protect some people. Eventually, he said, he told the police everything he knew.

It was while in police custody that the Stewart brothers agreed to give evidence against others.

In return, they were given a heavily reduced sentence for their part in the murder of UDA man Tommy English, in October 2000.

The brothers got a three-year jail-term instead of 22 years. They were released from prison last month.

It is not known where they are living now.

Challenged about whether any of his evidence was believable, Robert Stewart told the court it was all true, and he was now a changed man.

Looking over at the accused, he said: "Everybody sitting in that dock should be there.

"You either believe me, or you don't."