NIO agonised over use of incredible ‘supergrass’ trials

Derry supergrass Raymond Gilmour. (0807MMgilmour[)
Derry supergrass Raymond Gilmour. (0807MMgilmour[)

Top civil servants at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) wanted to discourage the use of supergrasses by pointing out they were not resulting in republican and loyalist paramilitaries being put behind bars.

That’s according to restricted NIO documents that have been newly-published by CAIN and PRONI.

Two years after Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lowry, dismissed Derry IRA and INLA ‘supergrass’ Raymond Gilmour’s evidence as “entirely unworthy of belief,” top civil servants were anxious to get the message out that the evidence of such informers against multiple defendants was not resulting in convictions.

PN Bell, in a restricted circular to Brian Blackwell from the NIO’s Law and Order Division dated February 5, 1987, said Secretary of State Tom King’s Permanent Secretary and Permanent Under Secretary had sent a minute asking “how we might capitalise on the apparent fact that no one is in prison solely on the evidence of a ‘converted terrorist.’”

Mr Bell said NIO officials and Ministers should be trying to get the information out there but that they shouldn’t risk blurring the line between the executive and judiciary.

“If I may venture an opinion of my own, I would not be in favour of too obvious/pro-active publicity (and a fortiori not of an arranged parliamentary question),” he wrote.

“This might appear to run counter to all that has been said publicly by the Government on the unexceptionable character of such evidence, and might also be taken to imply that the NIO had more control over the administration of justice than was desirable, proper or indeed the case,” wrote Mr Bell.

“However, I agree that we should ensure that the fact becomes known (including to the Irish) particularly since I hope we are now at the end of the period when it has been, partly as a result of supergrass trials, especially hard to build confidence in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland.

“My suggestion, therefore, would be that the fact be used as a throwaway line in speeches, in answers to supplementaries when we are Tops for Questions, and perhaps might make a mention in miscellaneous briefing material,” he said.