24 April 2008 Edition
Cover-up in UVF murder trial
A DEAL by the prosecution ensures the role of a senior Ulster Volunteer Force commander believed to have ordered and organised the killing of teenagers David McIlwaine and Andrew Robb will not be disclosed in court.
This is the latest in a series of attempts to thwart the successful prosecution of the case, attempts involving PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde, senior investigating officers, the prosecution service, and a member of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Ongoing attempts to stop full disclosure of the facts surrounding this double murder add weight to the families’ belief that the UVF commander responsible is a Special Branch agent.
Relatives of the victims walked out of a Belfast court in disgust last week after discovering the prosecution had entered into a plea bargain deal with one of the accused. It is a move, the families fear, that will limit the scope of the trial and undermine the possibility of exposing more of those involved in the killings.
Steven Brown (formerly known as Steven Revels) and Mark Burcombe appeared at Belfast High Court on Friday, 18 April, accused of the double murder. Relatives of the victims and observers from British Irish Rights Watch had not been informed that a deal might be made.
The court was told that Burcombe would be a prosecution witness against his co-accused. Crown prosecutor Donna McColgan said a statement was to be taken from Burcombe at a “covert location” within a fortnight.
In light of this, the Crown would be seeking a charge of grievous bodily harm with intent. Standing in the public gallery, the father of one of the victims, Paul McIlwaine, shouted his objection: “I am the father of one of the victims and I object strongly to any deal being done.”
Leaving the court, the families expressed their hurt and anger. Paul McIlwaine said he had only just been told of the new charge.
“I am absolutely disgusted. Nobody approached us about this. There has been no consultation. There shouldn’t be any deal with Burcombe.”
The families and their representatives fear that a deal with Burcombe, by encouraging Brown to plead guilty, will curtail the trial and thwart further disclosure against other, more senior loyalists involved in the killings.
The families also argue that such a deal is unnecessary as there is more than sufficient witness and forensic evidence to convict both men.
This is the first attempt to introduce ‘supergrass’ evidence since the mid-1980s when attempts to use paid perjurers against republicans spectacularly failed. But this is not the first time a plea-bargaining deal has been deployed to cover up state collusion.
During the trial of British Army Intelligence agent Brian Nelson – who was targeting people as the UDA’s intelligence chief – a deal in which Nelson pleaded guilty to lesser charges curtailed the trial and effectively closed down any public airing of the mechanisms of British collusion with loyalist death squads.
The mutilated bodies of 18-year-old David McIlwaine and Andrew Robb (19) were discovered in an isolated county lane in Tandragee, County Armagh, in February 2000. The boys had been killed in what has been described as a brutal beating and a frenzied knife attack.
The killings took place amidst an ongoing feud between the UVF and the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force. Prior to the teenagers’ murder, UVF leader Richard Jameson was killed by the LVF in Portadown. Neither David McIlwaine nor Andrew Robb was involved in either organisation.
The principal suspect, Steven Brown (then known as Steven Revels) was arrested and initially the McIlwaine family was told by the then RUC that there was conclusive forensic evidence to secure a conviction.
The family was also told that there had been prior intelligence that the UVF had planned a double murder in retaliation for Jameson’s killing on the night of the teenagers’ death.
But a short time later the story changed and senior investigating officers informed the McIlwaine family that they couldn’t proceed with the case because of lack of evidence.
In the summer of 2000, the McIlwaines were visited by a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, Jim Dickson, who told the family that the case could not be prosecuted because it would destabilise the political process to convict members of the UVF.
Meanwhile, the family had learned that the senior UVF figure who ordered and organised the killing was believed to be a Special Branch agent. The family later learned there had been evidence linking Steven Brown with the same UVF figure.
Emerging media reports, from a number of sources – including UTV, BBC, Belfast Telegraph, the Sunday Times and Sunday Tribune – began raising questions about the killings. Some media reports, citing ‘security sources’, claimed a senior UVF agent involved in a series of killings had been involved.
In December 2000, the Director of Public Prosecutions (now the Public Prosecution Service) dropped the case against Steven Brown.
An inquest had been denied because of ongoing investigations but once the case against Brown was dropped the families pressed for the inquest to be convened. An inquest was scheduled for 2002.
Acting on the suspicion that there had been collusion in the killing of his son, Paul McIlwaine instructed lawyers to seek a widening of the remit of the inquest by invoking Article 2 of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which castigated the British Government for failing to properly investigate controversial killings.
The response of the state was swift and decisive. PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde denounced any attempt to invoke Article 2 and threatened to slap gagging orders – Public Interest Immunity Certificates (PIICs) – against any attempt to scrutinise state collusion.
As the support group Relatives for Justice pointed out, it was unusual for a chief constable to invoke PIICs in relation to a killing for which an illegal organisation is responsible when previously gagging orders had been used in relation to killings carried out by the state.
Initially, the coroner ruled in Chief Constable Orde’s favour but a judicial review initiated by the McIlwaine family overturned the decision. The judge ordered the PSNI to hand over details of its investigation. In 2004, the documents were handed over but they were heavily censored and did not include any intelligence material.
But what became very clear was that there was ample evidence, both eyewitness and forensic evidence including DNA, likely to secure a conviction.
In 2005, Paul McIlwaine approached Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and asked for help. As a consequence, Adams raised the issue with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Subsequently, the two senior PSNI investigating officers, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Todd and Detective Superintendent Phil Aiken, were removed from the case. And following a BBC Crimewatch programme, Steven Brown and Mark Burcombe were arrested and charged.
Their trial opened in Belfast last week with the announcement of a deal.