From Militant Irish Monthly, October 1983.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). (March 2103)
So far 350 people have been charged and a number convicted on the evidence of the so called “supergrasses” in Northern Ireland. The use of supergrasses, or paid informers, is an affront to all standards of justice. It is also a serious threat to basic, democratic rights, and freedoms, and as such is not an issue which trade union and labour movement organisations either in Ireland or in Britain can afford to ignore.
To permit the word of a paid agent as reliable evidence is bad enough. But in Northern Ireland it is not just that this evidence is heard, but that convictions are based solely upon it, with no need for the state to provide even a shred of evidence in corroboration.
As if this were not a big enough perversion of justice, there is the added twist that these trials are held in special, non-jury courts where the judge has nobody to caution about the nature of the evidence except himself!
Worse still is the added refinement of the system through a “Bill of Indictment”, by which preliminary hearings have been suspended in some cases. With the clogging up of the Northern Ireland court system it is unlikely that the trials of those held on the word of the latest batch of supergrasses will be heard for two years. At present, one supergrass case, that of Kevin McGrady, is at court. Those held on remand on the strength of his word have already been in prison for 20 months. In other words, they have already served almost the equivalent of a four year sentence.
Like all other forms of repression this represents a threat to the organisations of the working class. At the moment it is being used against the paramilitary groups, both loyalist and republican. But it could be used against anybody.
The emergence of the supergrasses is a sure sign of the internal weakness of the paramilitaries and the dead end of their campaign. They are now prey to informers because their membership have largely lost any hope that their campaign can get anywhere.
The greatest threat to the plans of this Tory government comes not from paramilitaries but from the trade union movement. The Tories have set out to weaken the unions and prevent them resisting their policies. At present, an offensive against the Health Service unions in underway. The object is to clear the way for privatisation of hospital services. The immediate tactic is the weeding out of the best trade union militants in each hospital.
In the supergrass system the ruling class have a weapon with which they can put virtually anybody behind bars for two years before there is even a hearing of their case. It is not a question that this is about to happen to trade union militants and community activists now, although this is quite possible. It would be a convenient answer to Tory problems with the Health Service unions. Rather it is a threat for the future. If these methods can be effectively used against paramilitary groups today they can be retained for possible used against the labour movement tomorrow.
This is therefore an issue which the trade union and labour movement must take up, doing so in a non-sectarian and class fashion and making clear that to oppose repression is not to give all ounce of support to the activities of the paramilitaries. In fact, it has been the campaign of the paramilitaries which have given the state the excuse to introduce this latest perversion of justice in Northern Ireland.
When its position is threatened the ruling class is prepared to trample on every democratic right to achieve its ends. The history of repression in Northern Ireland up to and including the use of supergrasses is a warning as to the methods which a so-called democratic state will employ. The supergrass show trials are but a continuation in a new guise of a policy which has been in operation for more than a decade.
In 1971 internment without trial was introduced. It provoked an international outcry. Nonetheless it was retained until the British ruling class could come up with all alternative means of achieving the same ends.
In 1975 internment was replaced by the use of special, non-jury Diplock courts where the onus of proof was shifted to the accused. 90% of the cases before these courts resulted in conviction.
A refinement of this new legalised form of internment was the basing of convictions, not on evidence, but on confession signed by the accused. However in 1978 an Amnesty International report revealed the brutal methods used by the police in Castlereagh and other police stations to force people to sign confessions.
Because of the outcry, the government was forced to investigate and the subsequent Bennett Report, although whitewashing the entire issue, did force changes in interrogation methods, and so upset what had been and extremely effective means of convicting people without evidence.
So the state was again forced to seek an alternative. The answer they have come up with is the use of supergrasses. Convictions on the word of informers is not new. But now the state is going to unbelievable lengths to induce informers to give evidence.
Clifford McKeown, a loyalist supergrass who recanted his evidence at the last moment, claimed he had been offered £50,000. Others have made similar claims. These witnesses are therefore people who are paid for their evidence and who have a vested interest in what they say. It should go without saying that a court should weigh any evidence against the character of the person giving it. And when it suits this is done even in Northern Ireland, but only when it suits!
In 1981 an RUC sergeant, Thomas McCormick, was charged with the murder or another policeman. The evidence against him was the word of a man who had been a paid RUC informer.
To the judge such evidence could not be taken as reliable unless corroborated and so he dismissed the charges.
How quickly things change! The very same judge this year found evidence of UVF supergrass Joe Bennett convincing enough to convict. On September 11th the Sunday Times examined in detail the Bennett case.
In court Bennett denied ever committing murder. Yet the Sunday Times quotes two UVF sources who state that he murdered a 61 year old man by blowing him to bits in 1973. He also shot a 74-year-old postmistress during a robbery in 1982.
Yet Bennett was judged of such a sound character that his word alone was sufficient evidence. So was IRA informer Christopher Black, whose word alone was enough to lead to a total of 1.000 years imprisonment for 15 people. The same state which judges the word of INLA informer, Harry Kirkpatrick, sound enough to justify arrests and charges, also convicted him after finding him guilty of five murders, six attempted murders and 74 other offensives. Clearly all that these cases amount to is another form of legalised internment.
The labour movement must now demand an end to these trials, an end to the internment by remand of the accused, a return to trial by jury with preliminary hearings and full rights to cross examine witnesses and full access to all evidence. Those already convicted solely be supergrass evidence should be released. If the state claims to know they are guilty, let the state produce the evidence in open court on which they base their knowledge.
Pressure by the labour movement can win these demands. Past opposition to repression has shown that campaigns based upon sectarian or paramilitary groups are weakened from the outset. But the trade union movement could unite workers on this issue and by presenting a non-sectarian opposition could force the government to retreat.
Last updated: 2.3.2013