Police in Northern Ireland failed to prevent two loyalist murders despite receiving advance warning of the plots from a paramilitary commander turned informant, a court has heard.
Intelligence officers in the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch also advised loyalist supergrass Gary Haggarty not to answer detectives' questions when he was arrested over a murder he committed, a sentence hearing in Belfast Crown Court was told.
Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) chief Haggarty, 45, a long-time police informer, has pleaded guilty to 202 terror offences, including five murders, as his part of a controversial state deal that offered a significantly-reduced prison term in return for giving evidence against other terrorist suspects.
During the second day of a hearing to consider his ultimate tariff, Haggarty’s defence barrister argued while his client was automatically entitled to a reduction for turning state’s witness in 2010, the terror boss should also be given credit for assisting Special Branch since becoming an RUC agent in 1993.
Martin O’Rourke QC claimed Haggarty warned his handlers his UVF colleagues planned to kill fellow member Raymond McCord jnr in November 1997.
He said Haggarty, the one-time boss of the UVF’s notorious north Belfast Mount Vernon gang, was in custody at the time Mr McCord’s death was being planned and he phoned Special Branch on his own mobile and the jail payphone to alert them.
“The defendant told Special Branch of the plot to kill Mr McCord,” the lawyer told judge Mr Justice Colton.
Beaten to death
The killing was not prevented. Mr McCord was beaten to death by the Mount Vernon UVF and his body was dumped in a quarry in north Belfast.
Mr O’Rourke further claimed Haggarty informed Special Branch of his gang’s intention to shoot a random taxi driver in Antrim on June 17th, 1994.
Catholic taxi driver Gerard Brady, 27, was shot dead that night, hours after Haggarty allegedly provided his handlers with detailed information on the plan.
The barrister said Haggarty contacted his handlers after the murder to ask why it had not been stopped.
“He was told they had followed the vehicle but they had lost them,” said Mr O’Rourke.
The lawyer said in the wake of both murders Haggarty provided officers with the names of the individuals involved.
One of the five murders Haggarty has admitted himself was that of 55-year-old Belfast grandfather Sean McParland in 1994.
He confessed to that crime and a litany of others after signing his contentious supergrass deal following his arrest in 2009.
The court heard he had been arrested in the immediate aftermath of the sectarian shooting of Mr McParland, however was urged by Special Branch to keep quiet.
“His handlers told him he should refuse to answer questions,” said Mr O’Rourke.
Outlining the extent of his co-operation with Special Branch during the Troubles, Mr O’Rourke further claimed information provided by Haggarty thwarted the murder of a Sinn Féin worker, and a tip-off from Haggarty prevented the killing of a brother of a suspected IRA member.
He also claimed Haggarty gave Special Branch officers a copy of a key to a block of flats in Mount Vernon that contained a loyalist arms store. He alerted his handlers to the weapons that were there, but Special Branch did not seize them. One of the guns was subsequently used to kill Mr Brady. And he claimed he provided detailed information on those responsible for beating to death father-of-four John Harbinson, in north Belfast in 1997.
The barrister told the judge: “It is our case that the court should allow discount for assistance the defendant says he has given to police outside the SOCPA (Serious Organised Crime and Police Act) process, long before that process was engaged.”
Since turning supergrass, Haggarty provided information on 55 loyalist murders and 20 attempted murders in 1,015 police interviews.
Prosecutors are to mount a prosecution against one man, for two murders, on the back of the loyalist godfather’s evidence.
However, the vast majority of individuals named by Haggarty in his police interviews will not face prosecution amid state concerns about a lack of supporting evidence.
Part of the supergrass pact saw him plead guilty to a catalogue of terror offences stretching over a 16-year period from 1991 to 2007, including the murders of Mr McParland, John Harbinson, Gary Convie, Eamon Fox and Sean McDermott.
As well as the five murders, Haggarty, who is in protective custody, has also admitted five attempted murders, including against police officers; 23 counts of conspiracy to murder; directing terrorism; and membership of a proscribed organisation.
“He has placed himself at huge personal risk and will remain subject to that risk, we say, for the rest of his life,” said Mr O’Rourke.
At the close of the sentence hearing, Justice Colton said he had to consider a “vast amount of material”.
As such, he said he would reserve his decision and hand down the sentence in the New Year. – PA–