Belfast Telegraph

High security for supergrass trial

By Liam Clarke

Relatives of people allegedly murdered by the UVF will be able to watch next week's supergrass trial by video to protect them from paramilitary supporters who may attend.

The trial of police agent Mark Haddock and 13 other people will be streamed to a secure location outside Laganside court house as a result of a confidential report, which has been obtained by the Belfast Telegraph.

It says: "Given the number of persons who will inevitably be present in the court during the trial of the 14 men charged in connection with this murder; lawyers, relatives and supporters (some of whom will inevitably be UVF supporters), the media and the affected families and victims, the panel suggested that separate provision be made for the families to view the trial other than in the trial courtroom itself."

The panel who wrote the report consists of Dame Nuala O'Loan, the former Policing Ombudsman, and Richard Harvey, a London-based human rights lawyer.

The report was commissioned by the PSNI to increase confidence in the investigation after the families of those killed expressed concerns about how it was being carried out.

The families then asked for the former Police Ombudsman and her appointment was agreed by the PSNI.

The report found that investigations into 14 other murders allegedly carried out by Mount Vernon UVF have been put on hold while the "Assisting Offender", a reference to the supergrass, is debriefed by detectives and members of the Police Ombudsman's office.

The police investigation is code- named Operation Stafford and was seen as a catalyst for some of the loyalist rioting in east Belfast over the summer.

The report states that the debriefing process, which started in January last year, has already taken more than 18 months. In that time all other Stafford murder investigations have been suspended.

The panel expresses "concerns about the length of time the debriefing process has taken".

It says this makes it impossible to "assess adequately the rate of progress, the sufficiency of staff resources or the thoroughness with which the overall Operation Stafford investigation is being pursued".

While the debriefing continues, detectives from Operation Stafford have been given other duties. The report says this is understandable given "the extent of criminality which needs to be investigated in Northern Ireland".

However, it adds: "It is essential that once that process has been completed a fully-staffed and fully-trained investigation team is made available exclusively for Operation Stafford."

The handling of the Stafford investigation is particularly sensitive because of the allegations of police collusion in the murders.

It is seen as a crucial test of the PSNI and Ombudsman's office's impartiality and effectiveness.

Stafford follows on from Operation Ballast, arguably Dame Nuala's most controversial investigation as Policing Ombudsman.

Her Ballast report was completed in 2007, but it was so explosive that only a redacted version was published. Even that ran to 162 pages.

Ballast found that most of the Mount Vernon UVF and all the UVF's ruling Brigade staff had at one time or another passed information to RUC Special Branch.

Background

The PSNI's Operation Stafford is investigating 15 murders carried out by North Belfast UVF, some allegedly with police collusion, between 1993-2000.

A trial for the murder of Tommy English, a UDA leader, opens on Tuesday. The cases were uncovered by Nuala O'Loan when she was Police Ombudsman.

Now she and barrister Richard Harvey head a review team overseeing the police investigation.

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