UVF 'supergrass' evidence to be used in Belfast murder trial

Two Catholic workmen were shot dead in a sectarian UVF attack in 1994

The evidence of loyalist "supergrass" Gary Haggarty is to be used against just one suspected Ulster Volunteer Force member who is alleged to be involved in the murders of two Catholic workmen in north Belfast in 1994.

The North's director of prosecutions, Barra McGrory, QC, announced on Tuesday that there is sufficient supporting evidence to justify taking a case against the loyalist suspect while also availing of Haggarty's evidence.

Haggarty initially had implicated 16 people including two former RUC special branch officers in a series of serious crimes including murders but it has now transpired that just one person is to be charged.

The loyalist suspect is expected to appear in court early in the new year charged with the murders of Mr Convie (24), a father of a young child, and Mr Fox (44), a father of six children. They were shot dead in a sectarian UVF attack at a building site in north Belfast in May 1994.

As the crimes happened before the 1998 Belfast Agreement even if convicted he will be eligible for release within two years under the early release scheme of the agreement.

The suspect appeared in court in 2014 charged with the murders but these charges were withdrawn without prejudice as the Public Prosecution Service assessed the value of Haggarty’s evidence. That meant the charges could be reintroduced against the suspect.

In October, t he PPS r tannounced thirteen people implicated in paramilitary violence by Haggarty, including the two former police intelligence officers, would not be prosecuted.

Mr McGrory found that Haggarty’s evidence alone was not sufficient to proceed with the prosecutions.

He said however he was still considering whether Haggarty's evidence could be used against the loyalist suspect in relation to the murders of Mr Fox and Mr Convie, and against two other UVF suspects in relation to the murder of John Harbinson, a Protestant killed by the UVF in north Belfast in May 1997.

On Tuesday Mr McGrory said he had decided that on the Harbinson murder that “Haggarty’s evidence alone is insufficient to prove an allegation beyond a reasonable doubt”.

“The evidence currently available to us does not provide the necessary support for Haggarty’s identification of the reported suspects as those involved in the abduction and murder of Mr Harbinson,” said Mr McGrory.

He said however he was satisfied that in relation to the murders of Mr Convie and Mr Fox there was “independent evidence which is capable of supporting his identification of the suspect”.

He said Haggarty would be a witness in the prosecution of the loyalist. Mr McGrory said the suspect would be charged with the two murders, with the attempted murder of a third person, with possession of a firearm and ammunition with intent to endanger life, and with membership of the UVF.

“I am mindful that this announcement will be difficult for the families involved in each of these cases. We are continuing to keep them updated on developments,” he said.

Haggarty, who has yet to be sentenced, is to appear in court on Wednesday where legal submissions will be made in respect of his case.

Haggarty (45), a former UVF commander in north Belfast and east Antrim, agreed in 2010 to give evidence against 14 of his former UVF colleagues and two of his former police handlers in relation to the murders of Sean McParland, Eamon Fox, Gary Convie and John Harbinson.

In June he pleaded guilty to these murders and also to the murder of 37-year Sean McDermott in Antrim in August 1994

As a so-called supergrass or “assisting offender” Haggarty is virtually certain to receive a heavily discounted sentence. He already has served three years in custody on remand so potentially he may serve no further time in prison.

He will enter a witness protection programme on his release.

He has pleaded guilty to 202 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 offences 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.

The fact that just one of sixteen people allegedly involved in very serious crime is to be prosecuted based on Haggarty’s evidence will raise further questions about the continuing viability of the supergrass system.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times