Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

How all evidence proves we need our supergrasses

Should the supergrass system be put out to grass? After the recent failure of the high-profile case involving the Stewart brothers, a number of defendants from the Rathcoole area and the notorious Mark Haddock, the consensus seems pretty much to be yes.

With the benefit of hindsight we are all now experts who can clearly see that this one was never going to work.

Whose bright idea was all this anyway? Millions have been wasted etc etc ...

So that's the end of that then?

Hopefully not.

For, flawed as the supergrass system may be, it still represents a potentially powerful tool against what many of us believe remains the biggest threat to society - the paramilitary gangsters who control huge swathes of this place.

Supergrass is not the name the authorities prefer.

The proper term is 'assisting offender' (you can see why the headline writers stick with supergrass though) and it is hardly unique to these shores.

Tommaso Buscetta may sound like a starter in a pizza restaurant but he was actually one of the first assisting offenders to take on the Italian Mafia.

And Tommaso was not alone. He was just one of hundreds who have given evidence against the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the even more secretive Calabrian mafia on mainland Italy and, of course, the transplanted dons in the US.

In America John Gotti, once known as the Telfon Don, was eventually jailed on the word of a supergrass. After his trial a prosecutor referred to him triumphantly as the Velcro Don.

But to make charges stick in these cases the judge (sitting without a jury in our local Diplock system) has to find the testimony of the assisting offender(s) believable. In the case of the Stewarts, Mr Justice Gillen thought otherwise - they lived on a "daily diet of lies" he said damningly.

That isn't to say, however, that the case shouldn't have been brought in the first place. Can you imagine the outcry if it had been revealed two men had walked into a police station, offered evidence against Mark Haddock, and the police and the PPS refused to take further action?

And it definitely isn't to say other cases shouldn't be brought in future. Among those on the cards is known to be a case which is likely to involve prominent figures in the UVF - a still fully-functioning illegal paramilitary gang which in recent years has increased in power and viciousness and is currently riven with tension between its Shankill sopranos and east Belfast uglies.

The bill for the Haddock case was indeed shocking (as one poster on the Slugger O'Toole website observed, in the end the only thing found criminal was the cost of the trial) but that does not have to set the standard for future court action. The supergrass system has worked against gangsters in other places. John Gotti, to take one example, died in prison.

Should we be rushing, then, to condemn something which might yet do the business against a few of our homegrown Teflon dons?

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