1 Mar 2012

The justice minister has told MLAs he sees no need for changes to the law in the light of the outcome of the UVF supergrass trial.

Twelve men were acquitted, nine of whom were charged with the murder of UDA member Tommy English in 2000.

The prosecution case rested heavily on the evidence of Robert and Ian Stewart.

Speaking at a meeting of the assembly’s justice committee, Mr Ford said he recognised that there was little enthusiasm for “accomplice evidence”.

Defending the decision to prosecute, the minister said the Stewart brothers had been interviewed 330 times by the police.

He explained that the practice had existed in common law back to the 17th century, but was formalised into legislation in the 1990s.

Referring specifically to the Tommy English trial, the minister drew attention to comments made by Mr Justice Gillen in his judgement.

“I do not see an immediate need to change the underpinning legislation,” Mr Ford said.

He said the legislation had been successfully used by the Crown in Northern Ireland to obtain convictions.

The minister said he knew from the police that “this trial was part of a much wider investigation into crimes committed by the UVF in north Belfast”.

‘Inducement to lie’

Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney raised questions about the position of the judiciary.

“Does independence mean you’re beyond criticism?” he asked.

Mr McCartney said he saw a need for legislation on accomplice evidence. He said there was “an inducement to lie”.

The Foyle MLA said there was a fear that “informers are being protected”.

Mr McCartney called on the minister to review the law and put new legislation through the assembly.

“People could say the legislation for interment without trial worked, but in terms of public confidence it didn’t,” he said.

Basil McCrea of the UUP said he was concerned about how much comment committee members were allowed to make about decisions made by the judiciary.

The committee also heard a briefing from the Attorney General, John Larkin, on judicial appointments.

Earlier, Northern Ireland’s director of public prosecutions said so-called supergrass trials would continue.

Barra McGrory QC defended the system and denied the verdicts in the UVF case were an embarrassment for the Public Prosecution Service and the police.

The Stewart brothers each had their sentences reduced by 19 years after admitting involvement in the murder of Mr English and agreeing to give evidence against their alleged accomplices.

The trial judge, Mr Justice Gillen, said they lied to the police and the court.

But Mr McGrory said the verdict had not discredited the legislation that made the trial possible.

Speaking to the BBC, he said: “Mr Justice Gillen was very careful to say that his concerns were with the particular witnesses in the particular circumstances of this case,” he said.