To risk being pedantic: if no other good comes from the supergrass trial that began in Belfast yesterday, at least the practice of referring to informers as ‘informants’ will have been dropped. Or I hope so. I don’t read all the papers but those I do, if they have to use the i word, it's been ‘informer’. Why was ‘informant’ ever used? Because ‘informer’ has resonances that ripple back through Irish history and the authorities didn’t want it to trigger the contempt it did.
You could argue it’s not fair or even law-abiding to experience such contempt. The fact is, the testimony that Robert and David Stewart give in the Laganside court in the coming days may result in the imprisonment of a number of highly dangerous men. The brothers Stewart in 2008 walked into Antrim police station and admitted to being UVF members. By confessing to their own crimes - around seventy – and by detailing the part played by others, they have managed to get their jail terms shrunk to two or three years rather than two or three decades.
There have been lots of public protest that we’re back to the supergrass trials of the 1980s which led to the arrest of dozens of IRA men but which collapsed when the word of the supergrasses was declared unreliable. The authorities claim that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005 is a totally different animal but not many people believe them. A supergrass trial is a supergrass trial, just as an informer is an informer.
But while there’s little doubt that the majority of people would like to see murderous members of the UVF safely behind bars, they feel an uneasiness that it's being done in this way. There’s something shameful about men who swear their allegiance to an organization, however detestable that organization, then turn on its members to save their own skin. That’s what the two Stewarts look like they’re doing.
Even most nationalists and republicans will have reservations about any convictions secured under these terms. But there’s one other, um, concern shall we say, that nationalists and republicans have as they watch this trial unfold. We know that loyalist murder gangs were threaded with those who acted under instructions from their police handlers, sometimes to commit murder. If there's going to be a trial, shouldn’t some of the men who pulled the strings be in the dock as well?