Alan Simpson: Why Crumlin Road courthouse would make a fitting museum of the Troubles
Retired RUC Detective Superintendent Alan Simpson spent much of his professional life in the Victorian edifice and is shocked at its current neglect
A few weeks ago, Ivan Little reported on the current state of the old Crumlin Road courthouse in Belfast and I was disappointed to read that, structurally, it continues to deteriorate. The photos of the interior accompanying the report were quite shocking and showed that the building is now little more than a roofless shell.
It is widely known that a property developer had purchased the courthouse for the princely sum of £1 with a view to turning it into an hotel, but just last week he announced that he has abandoned that idea and it's once again on the market.
I had a long connection with the courthouse, commencing in 1970 when I arrived in Tennent Street police station as a probationer constable fresh from initial training. Often, this duty fell to me, as I was so junior.
On the night shift, it was a long, boring and cold eight hours. This duty entailed endlessly walking round and round the building. Sometimes, to break up the monotony, I walked it clockwise and, for a change, did it anti-clockwise. I even found myself counting the paving slabs.
At that stage in my service, I had not yet been inside the courthouse, but I imagined it must be of considerable grandeur to match the magnificence of the building itself. When not on such boring duties, I was steadily building a record of catching joyriders and burglars with a view to getting into the CID.
All of these were heard at the lower magistrate's court. I then helped catch a house burglar and charged him. Despite having studied the Theft Act in depth during training, I'd overlooked that such a case could only be tried on indictment to the Crown Court. And so it was that, about three months later, I found my case listed for hearing at the Crumlin Road.
On arrival, I found the courtroom where my case was listed for hearing and immediately felt intimidated by the bewigged barristers and Lord Justice Jones on the bench in his red gown and judicial wig. Thankfully, my accused pleaded guilty and it was all over in about 15 minutes.
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I was accepted into the CID in late 1972 and sent as a trainee detective to Springfield Road in west Belfast. I found myself on a fast, upward learning curve, as the department was becoming overwhelmed with work, due to the increasing terrorist activity. I, therefore, had to deal with serious crimes well beyond my junior rank and many of these ended in trials in Crumlin Road.
I steadily moved up through the ranks of the CID and, in 1982, I was appointed as the detective chief inspector in-charge of the departments in Tennent Street and Oldpark. By that stage, I had attended many more trials at Crumlin Road courthouse, including the cases against those involved in the killing of Thomas Niedermayer, Captain Robert Nairac, the Ballymena bombers and the killing of Ann Ogilby. The latter had been carried out by the Sandy Row female unit of the UDA and nine women and one man pleaded guilty.
The Shankill Butchers had also been caught and sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment, but their leader, Lenny Murphy, escaped that trial, as he was already in prison on firearms offences. He, therefore, had time to fortify himself against interview by detectives and denied everything.
My return to Tennent Street coincided neatly with the commencement of the 'supergrass' phase of the Troubles. Between 1981 and 1986, 'supergrasses' were members from all the terrorist organisations, both republican and loyalist, who had been caught red-handed and, in the interests of their self-preservation, volunteered to give evidence against their fellow activists. This led to mass arrests and trials.
The first of these was Christopher Black, a member of the Ardoyne IRA, who had been caught in a hijacked taxi. He went on to give evidence against over 30 people. As the months wore on, Joe Bennett and William 'Budgie' Allen emerged as 'grasses' from the UVF and Harry Kirkpatrick, a member of the INLA, came to the fore.
I dealt with several of these cases and soon my name became synonymous with the much-hated system. I confess that I relished in the great irony of the situation, as all of the 'grasses' had been absorbed into their respective organisations by those now in the dock and these recruits had now returned to destroy them.
Each of these trials lasted many months. Some ended in mass convictions, but others were acquitted. The system ended in 1986, when Lord Chief Justice Lowry sat on all of the appeals and acquitted those who had been convicted.
There is a widely held belief that he did so, as he felt his judiciary was being used to solve the problems of Northern Ireland, whereas the real answer lay with the politicians.
The one aspect of major trials that I appreciated were the lengthy legal arguments, some lasting days. If a Diplock judge returned a guilty verdict, then he had to give his reasons and these too were of great interest.
In addition to being able to verbally address judges for many hours, some senior lawyers engaged in histrionics to emphasise a point. One of the best actors was the late Desmond Boal QC.
During one particular period, our boss of the Belfast CID was Detective Chief Superintendent Billy Hylands (now also deceased).
Among his staff, including myself, he was considered a rough diamond and could be quite overbearing. Consequently, he earned the nickname 'The Bear', but underneath his rough exterior lay a heart of gold. Boal was quite aware of this and, in one of his cases, the defendant claimed that he had falsely admitted to the crime because of intimidation by Hylands.
When Hylands had given his direct evidence, Boal leapt to his feet and began his cross-examination by saying: "The defendant claims that you frightened him by entering the interview room like a bear. Would you agree with that description?"
Hylands paused momentarily before answering: "My Lord, I can't honestly answer that as I don't know how bears enter rooms."
Boal decided to change tack and his next question was: "Well, to put it another way, the defendant claims that a big, ugly, rough-looking man came into the interview room and frightened him. Would you agree you fit that description?"
Again, Hylands paused and then answered: "Once again, My Lord, I can't say if I fit that description as I've always believed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Hylands then looked directly at Boal and said: "And you're no oil painting yourself, Mr Boal."
Game, set and match to Hylands.
I view the deterioration of the old courthouse with great dismay. It and the prison opposite were designed in the mid-19th century by the renowned architect Charles Lanyon. The prison has now been transformed into a place of great historic interest.
As the courthouse is inextricably linked to the prison in many ways, it would be unfortunate if action is not taken soon to restore the building, perhaps as a museum of the Troubles.
Alan Simpson is the author of Duplicity and Deception (Dingle: Brandon Books, 2010)