There is anger that the overall bill for a failed high-profile investigation into the UVF, based on the evidence of paramilitary commander-turned-supergrass Gary Haggarty, will run into many millions of pounds.
Yesterday, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced that 13 suspects implicated by Haggarty, including two former police intelligence officers, will not be prosecuted.
The PPS said there was insufficient corroborating evidence to support the allegations levelled by UVF boss Haggarty to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction.
Prosecutors are still considering the cases of three remaining suspects named by killer and long-time police informer Haggarty related to three murders, with decisions expected by the end of the month.
In the summer, Haggarty (45) pleaded guilty to 202 terror offences, including five murders, in a deal that will see him receive a significantly reduced prison term in exchange for his evidence when he is sentenced on October 25.
He could theoretically walk free to enter a new life with a fresh identity, given that he has already served three years in custody on remand – the equivalent of a six-year sentence.
Haggarty was interviewed more than 1,000 times by detectives in one of the biggest and most complex cases undertaken in Northern Ireland.
The catalogue of offences stretch over a 16-year period from 1991 to 2007 and include the loyalist murders of John Harbinson, Sean McParland, Gary Convie, Eamon Fox and Sean McDermott.
Haggarty, the boss of the UVF’s north Belfast Mount Vernon unit, provided evidence against others in relation to the murders of Mr Convie, Mr Fox, Mr McParland and Mr Harbinson. There will be no prosecutions over the murder of Mr McParland.
Evidence provided by Haggarty linking one suspect to the murders of Mr Convie and Mr Fox, and linking two suspects to Mr Harbinson’s murder, are still being considered by the PPS. It is understood some form of corroborating evidence is available in those cases.
As well as levelling allegations against 14 men he claimed were loyalist associates, Haggarty provided evidence in relation to alleged criminality by two former RUC Special Branch handlers who worked with him when he was an informer. No prosecutions will be taken against those two individuals.
Haggarty’s charge sheet also includes aiding and abetting murder, kidnap, possession of firearms, ammunition and explosives as well as hijacking, false imprisonment, arson, intimidation and conspiracy to riot.
As well as the five murders, Haggarty, who is currently in protective custody, admitted five attempted murders, including against police officers; 23 counts of conspiracy to murder; directing terrorism; and membership of a proscribed organisation.
The PPS decision has reignited the debate about the use of ‘assisting offenders’ legislation.
Five years ago, a trial of 13 alleged loyalists ended with the acquittal of 12 of the defendants, after the trial judge criticised the evidence provided by supergrass brothers Ian and Robert Stewart as being “infected with lies”.
The brothers served only three years of life sentences for the murder of a loyalist rival, after each struck an assisting offenders deal.
Haggarty agreed to become an ‘assisting offender’ as far back as 2009. In 2015, a detective described it as “one of the largest investigations that the PSNI has ever undertaken”.
As well as the huge costs to the PSNI of such a complex and lengthy probe, Haggarty’s case also involved a Police Ombudsman investigation.
The decision taken by the PPS would have been costly, as would Haggarty’s legal costs, custody arrangements and his ongoing protection – which he may receive for life.
TUV leader Jim Allister said he believed the costs of the investigation would be “very substantial”.
“The surprise I have is that, given all the focus on this, it has taken so long to get to this decision,” he said.
“I’m sure there are very substantial legal costs. Justice never comes cheap, but the longer this thing has went on the more it has cost, and there would be a concern about that. But a failed trial, or multiple failed trials, would cost a lot more.”
Upper Bann SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly, who sits on the Policing Board, said the PPS’ decision would have a “devastating” impact on the victims’ families.
“You don’t mind things costing a lot of money if they have the right outcome, but to spend time and effort and then to achieve nothing, you wonder why it all took so long,” she said. “How do you put a price on families getting closure and justice?”
Ms Kelly said the lack of a Policing Board due to the Stormont deadlock was hindering politicians’ ability to “hold the Chief Constable and the police to account”. She added: “The fact that Haggarty could technically walk away from this would be quite sickening for his victims’ families.”
West Tyrone SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the bill for the Haggarty case “totalled several million pounds”.
“The victims’ families have had to endure tremendous pain, not only in fighting for justice, but also in fighting against a system that is severely flawed,” he said.
“It would be wrong to focus on the cost, given the lives that have been lost – loved ones want to see justice delivered.”
Sinn Fein’s policing spokesperson, Gerry Kelly MLA, also expressed disappointment at the PPS decision.
He said that the decision by the DPP “is hugely disappointing for families of the victims who are rightly asking whether, after more than five years of investigations and admissions, is anyone involved in this case ever going to face prosecution?”
Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory said assessing the credibility of an assisting offender was a “complex task”.
“Full and careful consideration has been given to all of the evidence currently available in respect of all cases,” he stated.
“I have now concluded that the evidence currently available is insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction against 11 of the suspects reported by the PSNI and the two police officers reported by Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
“I have therefore taken a decision that a prosecution case against these individuals will not be taken forward. I fully appreciate that this news will be deeply disappointing for the victims in these cases.
“I understand that this will not just be because of the disappointment or anger they may feel about the decisions, but also because today is another day where they will be revisiting the pain of events from many years ago.”
A PPS spokesperson said costs relating to the case were not yet available.
No response had been received from the Department of Justice at the time of going to press.