So-called loyalist supergrass Gary Haggarty has been jailed for life after he pleaded guilty to a catalogue of murders, attempted murders and other paramilitary crimes.
However, while he was sentenced to life in prison for the murders that sentence is expected to be significantly reduced as part of his turning against his former Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) colleagues.
Haggarty (45), who is part of a witness protection scheme, issued his plea on Friday in advance of prospective murder cases against senior UVF members where he is due to be the prime prosecution witness.
At Laganside Crown Court in Belfast on Friday, Haggarty pleaded guilty to 200 crimes committed over a 16-year period from 1991 to 2007 when he was a member of the UVF. For most and possibly all of that period he was also acting as a police informant.
These include five murders, five attempted murders, 25 conspiracies to murder, four counts of directing terrorism, four kidnappings, six false imprisonments, five hijackings, numerous explosives-related charges, 18 woundings, and numerous other paramilitary-related offences.
A further 304 lower and separate offences were taken into consideration.
Haggarty appeared in the dock flanked by two armed PSNI officers rather than prison officers, as would be normal. He stood up and pleaded “guilty” in a clear voice as the charges were read out.
Haggarty, a former UVF commander in north Belfast and east Antrim, agreed in 2010 to give evidence against up to 14 of his former UVF colleagues and two of his former police handlers.
Haggarty is regarded as an "assisting offender", the official name for informants or "supergrasses, under the terms of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. He has been under protective custody since agreeing to turn informer. His address is listed as C/O the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Sentencing is expected to take place in late September, after which Haggarty is due to be the prime witness in murder cases against his former UVF colleagues in relations to four murders. He is also due to give evidence against his two former police handlers.
Huge and unprecedented
During the process to establish whether Haggarty might be deemed a credible “assisting offender” ,he gave more than 1,000 interviews to police, resulting in 23,000 pages of interview transcripts.
Sources have described the case as “huge and unprecedented”.
Haggarty pleaded guilty to four sectarian murders and one murder of a Protestant man. The victims were Sean McParland, a 55-year-old Catholic father of four children who was shot dead in south Belfast in February 1994; Catholic workmen Eamon Fox (44), a married father of six, and Gary Convie (24), a father of a young child, who were shot dead in north Belfast in May 1994; Sean McDermott, a 37-year-old single Catholic shot dead in Antrim; and John Harbinson, a Protestant murdered after being handcuffed and beaten in the loyalist Mount Vernon estate in north Belfast in May 1997.
Mr Justice Treacy said in respect of the murders under law the minimum prison term was life, which he imposed. The tariffs, or minimum terms for these murders, that Haggarty must serve would be decided later.
Outside court, Mr Fox’s son Ciaran broke down as he described his feelings. “It’s just hard sitting in a courtroom watching a guy admitting to murdering your father,” he said.
Killed at will
He said Haggarty was a “hitman” who “killed at will” even when as an informer “police knew what was going to happen and took no action to stop it”.
“Police knew my father and Gary Convie were both going to be murdered and they sat back and let it happen, and that’s hard to swallow. I don’t care about the UVF, they’ll meet their maker some day – the police, the people who were in authority to protect and serve, they didn’t protect my family,” said Mr Fox.
Senior investigating officer Det Supt Richard Campbell said the PSNI remained committed to the investigation into the Mount Vernon UVF gang. "I understand the frustrations of the families over the length of time this has taken but I have always said that it was important to take the time to get it right."