Grass roots

Supergrasses
March 1, 1996

The use of supergrasses in major terrorist trials in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s aroused much political and legal controversy. The collapse of the system and its subsequent rejection by the authorities served only to fuel the debate. In this volume, Steven Greer presents a serious academic consideration of the supergrass system. In doing so, he makes a significant contribution to the literature on legal responses to terrorism.

The book begins by tracing the history of the use of informers by law- enforcement agencies and picks out some examples from Irish history. Greer identifies the problems inherent in the use of supergrasses, not least the dubious reliability of their evidence and the need for democratically and legally accountable mechanisms for managing the system. The study then proceeds to examine the evolution of the supergrass system in Northern Ireland from the beginning of the Troubles in 1969 until the early 1980s when the system began to bear fruit. The implications of the operation of the supergrass system for the Diplock court system are considered in some detail.

Greer identifies three key factors in the advent of supergrasses: the development of effective informer networks by the police and the military; the problems faced by the police in obtaining confession evidence from terrorist suspects; a "crisis of allegiance" among paramilitaries, particularly those who had served sentences of imprisonment and did not wish to repeat the experience.

The use of supergrasses is then examined during its prime in 1983 and then attention is focused on its subsequent decline and collapse after the loss of judicial confidence in the system. A problem arose because of the number of supergrasses retracting evidence, citing inducements from the authorities as their original motivation for speaking. The immunity from prosecution offered initially to those involved in very serious offences meant that the public was unsure of the value of the system. It is pertinent that criticism of supergrass trials came from all sections of the community in Northern Ireland and was not founded on sectarian lines.

Initial successes in securing the conviction of many paramilitaries are shown to have been failures. Many convictions based solely on the evidence of supergrasses were later quashed because of questions over the credibility of their statements. The reader is left with a sense of incredulity at a system of justice seemingly so willing to accept the uncorroborated evidence of self-confessed criminals, even when it was inconsistent and contradictory. The discussion of the effects of restrictions on the right of silence introduced to Northern Ireland in 1988, and now ominously to the mainland, leaves the reader with a similar sense of unease.

The book concludes with some comparative material relating to the successful use of supergrasses in other jurisdictions. Greer analyses the successes and distinguishes the system operated in Northern Ireland on similar grounds. Finally, the role played by the criminal justice agencies is examined to assess the effects of the supergrass trials.

The book has much to commend it. The argument is based on meticulous research and the detailed accounts of the trials themselves illustrate well the points being made. It is unfortunate that despite strong efforts by the author to locate a supergrass, there is no personal account of the decision to give evidence but this does not detract from the quality of the study. The analysis is coherent and intellectually convincing, demystifying the system and providing valuable insight into the authorities strategy for dealing with terrorists. Greer places the supergrass experiment in its historical and contemporary context and makes some germane points about the whole criminal justice process.

Supergrasses will be of interest to academics and students of the process of criminal justice and will be particularly relevant to those examining anti-terrorist measures. Greer has produced an important piece of work that will be of benefit to the academic debate on the appropriate legal method of dealing with terrorists.

Alan Davenport is a lecturer in law, University of Northumbria at Newcastle, and editor of the Journal of Civil Liberties.

Supergrasses: A Study in Anti-Terrorist Law Enforcement in Northern Ireland

Author - Steven Greer
ISBN - 0 19 825766 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 328

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