Major N. Ireland paramilitary murder trial begins

6th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

A Protestant paramilitary leader and 13 co-accused went on trial Tuesday over the murder of a rival Loyalist chief, in the biggest such case in Northern Ireland since the 1980s.

Mark Haddock, a commander of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitary group, was kept apart from the other defendants at Belfast Crown Court as the trial got under way amid a major security operation inside and outside court.

The 14 face a string of charges over the killing of Tommy English, leader of the rival Loyalist group the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Eight prison officers surrounded 42-year-old Haddock, who is in protective custody during the trial for his own safety. The court's public gallery was packed.

As well as being the biggest paramilitary murder trial for a generation, it was the first so-called "supergrass" trial in Belfast for some 25 years -- in which terror suspects are convicted on the evidence of former comrades.

Haddock and the other defendants are being tried on evidence based largely on the testimony of two of their original co-accused, brothers David and Robert Stewart.

The UVF members both turned state witnesses to gain a lesser sentence. Haddock is himself a former police informant.

Police were on alert at Belfast flashpoints over concerns that anger in Loyalist communities could boil over into violence, fears that have been increased by recent violence in Protestant neighbourhoods.

Angry residents in Loyalist communities have put up banners denouncing supergrass trials. Similar banners were held up by a group of around 10 protesters outside the court on Tuesday.

English, 40, was gunned down in front of his wife and children in his north Belfast home during a bloody feud between his UDA paramilitary and the UVF.

The UVF and UDA are rival Protestant, paramilitary groups which support Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom and oppose Catholic Republican groups who want the province to join the Republic of Ireland.

The trial evoked memories of similar cases in the 1980s, at the height of Northern Ireland's three decades of sectarian unrest known as the Troubles during which around 3,000 people were killed.

The Troubles were largely ended by 1998 peace accords between the Protestant and Catholic communities, although violence still flares up occasionally.

© 2011 AFP

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