Northern Ireland

North Belfast UVF supergrass trial lasted 71 days

Tommy English
Image caption Tommy English was murdered in 2000

Having begun at the start of September 2011, the UVF Supergrass trial was one of the largest, longest and most expensive in Northern Ireland's legal history.

The prosecution made use of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005, known as SOCPA, and relied on the evidence of the two Stewart brothers, Robert and Ian, called "assisting offenders" by the court, but known as "supergrasses" by everyone else.

The Stewarts had given themselves up to detectives at Antrim police station in August 2008, after fleeing their homes in New Mossley with money stolen from their elderly parents.

They told detectives and the court that they had tired of their lives in the UVF and wanted to make a clean start.

Both men served prison sentences for their crimes, reduced by 19 years each, in return for their evidence against their alleged former associates.

But in looking at its legal implications for the authorities, and any potential supergrass cases in the future, observers have sometimes forgotten the human story at the centre of the trial.

Fourteen men were accused of crimes ranging from murder, kidnapping and membership of the UVF, to wounding, common assault, and grievous bodily harm.

All of them denied all the charges against them.

The charges centred around four major incidents; three vicious beatings in the 1990s, and the murder of UDA man Tommy English in 2000.

During the trial Mr Justice Gillen, who sat as both judge and jury in a Diplock Court, was to throw out the charges involving two of the beatings, allowing one of the accused, 38-year-old David Smart, to go free.

Over 71 days of court hearings, the details of the prosecution case against the 13 remaining accused, and the memories of the Stewart brothers about them, became clear.

Tommy English was a prominent UDA member.

During the loyalist feud of summer and autumn 2000, he was murdered in his home on the Ballyduff Estate, outside Belfast, in front of his wife Doreen, and their three young children.

The Stewart brothers, both UVF members by this time, told the court how it happened.

The evidence

On the afternoon of 31 October 2000, the brothers claimed, they had been present with many of the accused in a flat at Ballyvesey Park in New Mossley.

They said that during that time the murder of Mr English was planned and organised, in revenge for the killing of Progressive Unionist Party worker Bertie Rice.

Image caption Tommy English was a prominent UDA member

With two other men, the brothers were sent to hijack a taxi and hold the driver captive for a short time.

One of two other men drove the taxi back to the flat, and another was tasked with finding it in a particular street after the killing, and setting fire to it with a container of white spirit which had been bought specially.

The plan was to destroy any evidence which may have been left by those planning the murder, and using the taxi to carry it out.

Then another group of four men drove the taxi the few miles to the English home, and entered it by the back door.

A reconnaissance of the best door to use had been carried out earlier that day. A sledge hammer bought to break the door down was not needed, and was left behind with part of a sales ticket still attached, a valuable clue for detectives.

Doreen English struggled with her husband's attackers, and was punched before the attackers shot him in the hall.

Two of their small children were watching from the stairs.

Once the four men had left the scene they abandoned the taxi at the agreed spot, but it was not burned as planned.

The other men had mislaid the white spirit, and fled the scene instead.

The Stewart brothers told the court they had left a replica handgun used in the hijacking with one of the 13 accused who had otherwise not been involved in the incident.

They said he promised to get rid of it.

They also claimed they then went to the home of another man unconnected with either the UVF or the crime, and asked him to burn their clothes, and collect a change of clothes for them.

In other evidence, the brothers told of three vicious beatings, and named the defendants they believed had been involved.

In the end, the charges arising from two of these beatings were thrown out by the trial judge, and there remained only those connected with the kidnapping and assault of a man called Archibald Galway in May 1996.

The job for Mr Justice Gillen was to hear this evidence as trial judge and ensure that the case was conducted properly. Once he accepted evidence, and retired to act as jury, he had to decide if he believed it.

The supergrass system

Criminal barristers will tell you that the evidence of several witnesses telling the same story in court will always have differences and inconsistencies.

Image caption Mr Justice Gillen listened to week's of testimony from the 'supergrass' brothers, Robert and Ian Stewart

This was certainly the case with the Stewart brothers.

It emerged that between them they had been interviewed by the police and the Historical Enquiries Team more than 330 times, often in secret locations in England.

The detectives involved had often not even known their real names.

But in court, as certain details of their stories diverged, the defence lost no opportunity to portray them as unreliable witnesses who simply could not be believed.

They painted them as men hoping from the start to receive reduced sentences under the SOCPA legislation, and possibly even a large cash reward.

The exchanges between the defence barristers and the brothers in court were often bad-tempered and angry.

The brothers both used similar answers for any discrepancy about which they were challenged, that during the many police interviews they had been slowly remembering things which they had spent years trying to forget.

This, they claimed, meant that it was inevitable that their stories would change, and sometimes diverge.

"I was just trying to get events clear in my mind." they said, time and time again.

After 71 days of court proceedings, Mr Justice Gillen retired to consider his judgement.

With 13 defendants, and 13 defence teams including eight firms of solicitors, with so many charges being considered, and with so many claims and counter claims, his job will have been anything but straightforward.