Northern Ireland

History of the supergrass system in Ireland

A loyalist protest against the supergrass system outside Crumlin Road courthouse in 1984
Image caption A loyalist protest against the supergrass system outside Crumlin Road courthouse in 1984

The early to mid-1980s was an extremely turbulent time across Northern Ireland.

The Conservative government and the security forces were struggling to counter an ever-increasing terrorist threat and a rising body count.

A major element of that security strategy was a bit like stating the obvious - get as many terrorist suspects as possible convicted in the courts and put them behind bars. Enter the informer.

He or she was to become a crucial weapon in the security forces' armoury.

The RUC chief constable at the time, Sir John Hermon, called them "CTs" - converted terrorists.

Technically they were "assisting offenders".

But on the streets of the communities they came from, as evidenced by the graffiti on the walls, they were branded "touts" and "supergrasses".

Jim Gibney, a senior Sinn Fein advisor, was jailed for six years on the evidence of a republican supergrass.

"It corrupts whoever comes into contact with it. At the heart of it there is a lie. And that lie is spun invariably by the supergrass himself," he said.

"It's then picked up by the police who use it against the accused.

"The judge then picks it up and uses it to convict those people in the dock in front of him.

"That's what happened to me and over 500 others from republican and loyalist backgrounds in the 1980s. So supergrass testimony undermines the very basis of the justice system."

During the early 1980s, people took to the streets to protest at what they called the "show trials".

Image caption Sir John Hermon was RUC chief constable during the supergrass trials of the 1980s

It was claimed informers were offered cash inducements and that secret deals were struck at a political level, approved by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

At that time, the trials held in the now derelict Crumlin Road courthouse in Belfast were the largest in British criminal history.

In one of them in 1983, 22 IRA suspects were jailed for a total of 4,000 years.

By the mid-1980s, the supergrass system had collapsed over concerns about the credibility of the evidence while members of the judiciary complained they were being used as political tools to implement government security policy.


In 2005, a change in the law saw a range of safeguards for trials of this kind being introduced including improved disclosure for the defence. On top of this the Human Rights Act was now in place.

Mary O'Rawe, who is a barrister and senior law lecturer, said that even with those changes there are still flaws within the system.

"The right to silence has been eroded, so that has an implication in terms of the evidence and we are still attended by the same sort of flaws that existed in the 80s' process," she said.

"These include the lack of corroboration and the motivation of people giving evidence because basically they are looking at much reduced jail terms and a new identity somewhere else at the taxpayers' expense."

The informers' fingerprints are all over the history of conflict in Ireland as Eamon Phoenix, a politicial historian at Stranmillis University College in Belfast, explains.

"The best example would be Dublin's Phoenix Park murders in 1882 when a British chief secretary of Ireland was stabbed to death and five men were hanged on the word of a supergrass who was hunted down by that secret republican organisation and killed," he added.

"That's a classic example in Irish history of what actually happened to informers.

"I think whether the informer was loyalist or republican, no quarter was given".

When the supergrass trials in the 1980s collapsed and the suspects walked free, it marked the end of that particular episode in the Northern Ireland legal system.

Over the past three decades, the legislation has changed but the name hasn't.

The term supergrass and all that it evokes still resonates strongly amongst legislators and within the wider Northern Ireland community.