The New ‘Improved’ Supergrass System by Alex McGuigan
Joint Loyalist & Republican protest at Stormont against the ‘Supergrass’ paid perjurer show trials of the 1980’s
The northern statelet’s recent unrolling of a new ‘improved’ version of the so-called ‘Supergrass’ legislation, officially termed the ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005‘ after over 25 years gathering dust on the statute books, should be a cause of concern for Republicans, Socialists and activists of all hues possessed of a world view not shaped by neo-liberalism and the likes of the Murdoch media.
Those within the recently expanded constitutional nationalist community who seemed to welcome the last Supergrass show-trial, primarily due to the fact that on this occasion, it was utilized against members of Haddock’s sociopathic north Belfast UVF death-squad and the publicity surrounding the forthcoming Gary Haggerty supergrass trial, displayed regrettable political myopia, not to mention serious amnesia. Not to mention glaring selective amnesia from some sources, most notable being the new Supergrass system’s chief proponent, Public Prosecutions Service (PPS) supremo, and former defence lawyer, Barra McGrory, whose late father represented scores of ‘supergrass’ defendants in the 1980’s.
Between 1981 and December 1985 close to 30 paid perjurers or so-called “Supergrasses” were induced to give evidence against over 600 INLA, Provisional IRA and Loyalist defendants.
In the first of the Supergrass trials, involving UVF member Joe Bennett and Provisional IRA members Christopher Black and Kevin McGrady, 90% of defendants were found guilty on the word of their alleged former ‘comrades, while 75% of those who were found guilty were convicted without any supporting or corroborative evidence.
Despite the best efforts of the RUC combined with all the weight of the northern statelet acting in their habitually zealous supportive roles, publicly pushing the concept of the “converted terrorist”, the system eventually fell apart some two years later. Appeal Court judges, their hands forced by international jurisprudence and human rights pressure and the sterling efforts of some of the best lawyers employed by the defendants, overturned convictions that had been secured solely without corroborative evidence.
Republican Socialists suffered disproportionately due to the ‘Supergrass’ system, with scores of IRSM activists imprisoned on the words of a series of paid perjurers. The well-documented repercussions of the Harry Kirkpatrick Supergrass trial almost proved fatal for the entire Republican Socialist Movement, with one of the first victims of the state-induced counter-revolutionaries being the late Ta Power, who held the distinction of being the longest serving remand prisoner in legal history.
The Harry Kirkpatrick Supergrass trial saw 25 Republican Socialists gaoled for lengthy sentences in December, 1985, on the word of a paid perjurer. However, over a year later the vast majority of those gaoled walked free on appeal and in effect, this saw the entire discredited ‘Supergrass system’ being shelved, until 2009, when the new ‘improved’ legislation was first tested on a smaller scale to convict mid-Ulster loyalist Steven Brown (also known as Steven Revels) where his former co-accused, Mark Burcombe, agreed to give evidence against him. The defendant’s appeal was later refused by the Appeal Court and it is thought that this signaled the legal precedent and proverbial green light, for a much more extensive use of the Supergrass system being implemented in the north, as we saw in the recent UVF trial involving the supposedly religiously converted Stewart brothers giving evidence against their former Loyalist death-squad members.
The New Improved Paid Perjurer System
Unlike the previous Supergrass system, the new so-called ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA)’ where those giving evidence are legally referred to as “assisting offenders”, new style Supergrasses are not officially offered ‘immunity’ but are legally guaranteed a significantly reduced sentence. However, in effect, this amounts to what factually happened to many supergrasses from the 1980’s period, who were held in a special ‘Supergrass unit’ in an isolated section of the Crumlin Road gaol, known as the ‘Annexe’, until such times as they gave evidence at the trial of their former comrades.
In the new tweaked Supergrass system, those prepared to give evidence against former associates or comrades, are legally bound to proverbially sing for their supper, with any retraction of agreed evidence (as happened regularly in the 1980’s, with many ‘retracted-Supergrasses’ walking free) leading to a return to court and a re-sentencing to much harsher terms of imprisonment. Furthermore, as was reported following the acquittal of the 14 UVF defendants during the Stewart brothers’ 71 day trial, the prosecutions were reportedly one of the most costly criminal legal actions in legal history. The Stewart brothers singing for their supper was seen to have been seriously out of tune for their handlers The PPS stated that they were considering if the Stewart brothers “knowingly failed to give assistance” which negated their part in the SOCPA ‘deal.’ The PPS, headed up by former defence lawyer, Barra McGrory, officially stated:
“Section 74 (2) of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 provides the mechanism to examine whether an assisting offender has knowingly failed to give assistance in accordance with the agreement with the prosecutor. The PPS is actively considering this in light of Mr Justice Gillen’s judgement.”
No Jury, No Justice and now No Right To Silence!
What certainly has not changed since the 1980’s Supergrass system is that political trials in the north of Ireland are still not afforded the legal safeguard of a jury. Lecturer in Law at the University of Ulster, Mary O’Rawe, stated that:
“Many of the same concerns that stalked and ultimately resulted in the shelving of the use of such evidence in the early 1980s, still attend the current process.”
What certainly has changed since the Supergrass trials of the early 1980’s, is that unlike legislation of that period, when suspects were afforded the ‘right to remain silent’ during interrogation, this has now been factually removed under the “Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988” and the later “Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Rules 2009/”. This legislation allows adverse inferences to be drawn by a Diplock trial judges when considering a verdict, based on a defendant’s failure to mention something prior to being charged with an offence that they may later seek to use in their subsequent defence.
Implications for Republican Socialists, Republicans and Socialists
Like every repressive measure or legislation enacted by the state, it will undoubtedly be used at a time of their choosing against those who seek to challenge the status quo, whether they be Irish Republican Socialist activists, traditional Republican armed groups, anti-Capitalist protesters or even militant trade unionists. With the current crisis in Capitalism allowing states to introduce much more draconian measures to screw the working-class, one can be sure that the iron fist of repression is being prepared to both legally and if need be, extra-judicially, crush any serious oppositional fight back. As was seen in England, with the infamous entrapment and agent provocateur case involving undercover cop-gone native-Mark Kennedy, it is not just’the usual suspects such as Irish Republicans who the state will use extensive legal and illegal resources to repress. Accordingly, non-violent groups, such as environmentalist protestors or in effect, any group that dissents, however mildly, from the status quo could find themselves the latest defendants in a trial under the new Supergrass system.
It would be extreme folly to suspect that the new Supergrass legislation will only be used against Loyalists. Ironically, it was during the previous Supergrass era of the early 1980’s that Republicans and Loyalists took part in rare joint protests against the use of paid perjurers in the north of Ireland. Irish Republican Socialists are right to point out the injustice of the new ‘improved’ Supergrass system on principle, irrespective of who it’s latest victims are, not least because history has shown us how easily the same repressive measures may be aimed directly at ourselves, when deemed politically expedient by the forces of reaction and the armed guardians of the state.
Many may think it equally ironic, that a former defence lawyer whose late father, Paddy McGrory, would have been one of the most vociferous critics of the original Supergrass system, is now it’s chief proponent and public apologist but others, better-versed in the anomalies of the Irish dialectic, rightly would adhere to United Irishmen leader, Henry Joy McCracken’s oft quoted assertion that when it becomes politically advantageous for the petit-bourgeoisie:
“The rich will always betray the poor!”