0 Fiaich calls
for end to supergrass convictions
by Peter Stanford CARDINAL Tomas 0 Fiaich has called for the "total abolition" of the supergrass system and for a swift return to court for three hunger strikers convicted on the evidence of a "supergrass".
The Cardinal's comments came as three Republican prisoners ended their hunger strike at the Maze Prison. All had been convicted on the evidence of Irish National Liberation Army supergrass, Harry Kirkpatrick. The three had taken up their protest in order to demand an early date for their appeal hearing and a complete review of trials based on the uncorroborated evidence of informers.
In a powerfully worded statement, the Primate of All Ireland called for "swift action" by the British government. "Has the government learnt nothing from the events of 1980 and 1981?" the cardinal asked.
"Surely no one will suggest that the prisoners' request for an asurance that their appeals will get a fair hearing within a short time (months rather than years) is unreasonable? Two of the hunger strikers were nearly four years in prison awaiting trial".
He went on to contrast their cause with that of those convicted in the Christopher Black case, the first of the major supergrass trials in the past four years which resulted in the jailing of 38 people on the evidence of Black, a former IRA member. Those convicted in that case had waited two years for their appeals to come to court.
Cardinal 0 Fiaich gave his backing to the hunger strikers' demands for the presence of international observers at the appeal hearing.
He stressed his disagreement "with hunger striking as a form of protest", but added that "the call to abolish the supergrass system is one of the few things in Northern Ireland at present which draws widespread support from both sections of the community".
The protest at the Maze drew to a close late on Monday evening, after the Cardinal had issued his appeal. The three prisoners, Robert Tobill, who ,had refused food for 19 days, Gerard Steenson and Thomas Power said that they were suspending their action.
Their decision came after a visit by the civil rights campaigner, Lord Gifford QC. On his return to London, Lord Gifford told the Catholic Herald that he believed that the assurances the protesters were seeking had been forthcoming. The Northern Ireland Office however denied that any concessions had been made.
Lord Gifford rejected suggestions that he had played any part in persuading the men to end their fast. His visit to the prison had been part of a growing campaign to put pressure on the government, but he had not taken part in any negotiations, he stressed.
He expressed concern for the health of Robert Tobill, who had been found guilty on 22 counts, including the murder in 1981 of a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment.
The cardinal's comments on the supergrass system came after concern had been voiced both in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Labour party spokesman on Northern Ireland, Peter Archer MP, has pledged a future Labour government to scrap the system.
It is thought that the role of supergrasses has caused differences of opinion between the British and the Irish governments which have surfaced in the discussions initiated by the recent AngloIrish accord.
Defence Lawyers representing those convicted on Kirkpatrick's evidence are to consult with Crown lawyers this week. However, legal sources in Belfast suggested that it would still probably take some months for arrangements to be made for an appeal hearing. The original trial lasted for 103 days.
Had the hunger strike continued observers had estimated that the protest would have become an important factor in the forthcoming byelections caused by the resignation of Ulster Unionist MPs in protest at Anglo-Irish accord.