Ring of steel as supergrass trial of loyalists begins
A ring of steel will be thrown around a Belfast court today as one of the largest paramilitary murder trials in decades - involving notorious loyalist chief Mark Haddock - begins.
A massive police presence is expected as Haddock- a one-time police agent - and 13 alleged associates appear in the dock in Belfast Crown Court.
All 14 defendants are facing charges connected to the killing of Tommy English during a UVF-UDA loyalist feud in 2001.
The non-jury trial has led to tension within the loyalist community after brothers David and Robert Stewart- self-confessed UVF members from Newtownabbey- both turned Crown witnesses to gain a lesser sentence.
Haddock (42), originally from Mount Vernon in north Belfast, and the other defendants will be tried on evidence based largely on the brothers' testimony.
The Stewarts are serving three-year sentences for their part in aiding and abetting the killing of Mr English.
He was gunned down at his home in Antrim in October 2000.
The trial could last up to three months, with the case being presided over by Mr Justice Gillen.
It is understood eight separate defence counsels have been instructed.
It's believed witnesses and members of English's family are to be kept in a secure room in a separate building in contact with Court 12 at Laganside via video-link.
Supporters of the accused have compared the case to the so-called 'supergrass' trials of the 1980s.
They saw both loyalist and republican paramilitaries jailed on the evidence of former colleagues who turned State's evidence.
The PSNI is making plans in the event of any trouble.
Today's tight security operation comes amid fears of violence breaking out in loyalist communities across the province.
Tommy English was gunned down in front of his wife in his Ballyduff home on October 31, 2000 during a bloody UVF-UDA feud. Mark Haddock and the 13 other defendants are charged with his murder. They deny a total of 41 charges arising out of the alleged activities of the UVF in the north Belfast and Newtownabbey areas.
All eyes on how the UVF will react
By Brian Rowan
This trial is a test for the UVF leadership on the outside - the Shankill Road-dominated 'command staff'.
There will be a sharp focus on the orders it gives in the days and weeks ahead. The big question is: how much police and political attention does the loyalist organisation want?
Because any trouble it causes will make the spotlight even brighter.
Does it want to riot and wreck its own communities to show its opposition to this supergrass trial? And if it does, what will be the reaction of the loyalist people?
However big this trial is, there could be bigger to come - evidence from a one-time senior UVF figure that could expose its entire leadership.
The more trouble the UVF causes, the more it makes for itself.