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Crumlin Road Court (Trial)

Volume 80: debated on Thursday 13 June 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make arrangements to pay an official visit to observe a trial involving evidence from a self-confessed terrorist at the Crumlin road court.

Is the Minister aware that many people regard the present system of juryless trials at the Crumlin road court as outrageous? It would be appropriate for him to pay a visit to see the way in which trials take place, with no jury, where the decision is made solely on the word of a supergrass witness who stands to benefit from giving evidence, and where only the judge makes the decision. How much money has been paid in the last four years to supergrass witnesses for their evidence in such circumstances?

The figure for which the hon. Gentleman asks, £1·3 million in recent years, has previously been given in the House. The answer to the main point of his supplementary question is that the matter must be seen against the background of terrorism and the struggle to protect the citizens of Northern Ireland. Terrorism has in the past included the intimidation of jurors, and that is why the recent Baker report concluded that the Diplock courts should continue. The uncorroborated evidence of which the hon. Gentleman complains is admissible in England and Wales, under federal law in the United States and in many Western countries. It is for the court to decide how much weight should be placed on that evidence. It is much better that the court should decide than that politicians or others outside the court should decide.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who believe that the Maguires and Bernard Conlans were erroneously convicted of terrorism by an English court with an English jury, also believe that they would probably have been acquitted if they had been tried in Northern Ireland by a Diplock court with a greater knowledge of explosive cases?

My hon. Friend will not expect me to follow him too closely down the Maguire trail. However, it is true, and it is a notable figure, that of those in Northern Ireland who pleaded not guilty before the courts, 50 per cent. were acquitted by a jury, and a higher proportion, 53 per cent., were acquitted in Diplock courts.

In view of the Government's rejection of the principle of joint sovereignty, will the Secretary of State also reject the Dublin proposals for the involvement of, and a role for, the Republic's judges in Northern Ireland?

I have noticed a flurry of speculation in the press, including the lead story in The Irish Times today. It is difficult to comment in the House or in public on discussions between Governments that are going on all the time and are confidential, but the right hon. Gentleman is too shrewd a hand to allow himself to be carried away by such speculation.

Does not recent experience, including the acquittal of several alleged terrorists at trials where accomplice evidence has been admitted, show that the judiciary of Northern Ireland is well aware of the dangers of convicting on uncorroborated evidence of accomplices, and that its quality is at least as high as that of the judiciary in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Is it not a violation of both natural and legal justice that some self-confessed murderers are literally being paid to give evidence that will save their skins, and are doing so in trials without juries? The right hon. Gentleman said that it is all right for that to happen in England and Wales, but he omitted the fact that there are juries in England and Wales but not in Northern Ireland. Is he going to do nothing to set right such a travesty of justice in Northern Ireland?

I am looking, as the hon. Member knows, at the Baker report's proposals and I shall soon, I hope, be able to tell the House the way in which my mind is working. I am sure that it would be wrong, and a false service to the citizens of Northern Ireland, if we were either to abolish the Diplock courts and go back to the intimidation of jurors, or to pass extraordinary provision by which Parliament would rule out uncorroborated accomplice evidence, however much a court might later wish to assess its weight. That would be an extraordinary and untoward decision.

Will the right hon. Gentleman keep in mind that opposition to the supergrass system comes not only from Republicans, but, almost unanimously, from the Unionist side of the House? Does he not realise that the Unionist side would defend a proper legal system, which is one of the systems under which we have to work? By taking uncorroborated evidence, the system under which we want to live is seriously weakened.

I agree that the sooner we can work toward the restoration of, or at least an increase in, jury trials, the more that everybody in the House and Northern Ireland will be pleased. The hon. Gentleman knows the proposals which the Baker report made in that direction, which I am weighing. I return to the basic point, which is that so long as intimidation of jurors is a problem in Northern Ireland we would be rash to suppose that we could reconcile justice with an untrammelled restoration of the jury system.

May I remind the Secretary of State that this question is about the use of supergrasses and that the vast majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland, to whom he referred, in both sections of the community, regard the supergrass system, according to recent opinion polls, as a very serious travesty of justice.

Let us suppose that a terrorist had committed a terrorist crime and that the only evidence available to bring him to justice was the evidence of one of his accomplices. As the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, it is not a matter of which community he belongs to. It would be very hard to say that that person could not be brought to justice even if the evidence of his accomplice would carry great weight in the court. Surely it must be right for the courts, whose independence has been rightly praised this afternoon, to make a decision in each case on the merits of that case.