RELATIVES wept as former Irish rugby star David Tweed was jailed for eight years today for a catalogue of child sex abuse.
Tweed, 53, a father of four, blew kisses and waved to family members as he was led from the dock in disgrace to begin his term behind bars at the high security Maghaberry Prison in Co Antrim.
There were heated exchanges between Tweed's supporters and members of his victims' family during the hearing at Downpatrick Crown Court.
Tweed, who was capped five times for Ireland during the 1990s and played at the World Cup in South Africa, was convicted of 13 counts of abuse including indecent assault and gross indecency with a child.
The sex abuse spanned an eight-year period from 1988 while he was at the height of his rugby career and happened when the girls were aged between eight and 11 years old.
Judge Alistair Devlin described the crimes as thoroughly despicable and deeply disturbing. He said they had left a devastating legacy on both women.
Judge Devlin said: "There was not one, but two victims. Each defendant was young, innocent and particularly vulnerable because of their young age, they came to be sexually abused and exploited."
Victim impact assessments, some of which were detailed in court, disclosed that one of the girls had attempted suicide, suffered sleep disturbance and saw her marriage break down.
The judge commended the courage displayed by both victims, who took the stand and gave evidence during Tweed's two-week trial.
Judge Devlin said: "The defendant has shown and continues to show no remorse whatsoever in relation to any of these offences."
Tweed showed no emotion as the sentence was handed down. He stood in the dock flanked by two prison guards with his hands clasped tightly in front of him. At times, when details of the abuse were read out, Tweed, who consistently denied guilt, shook his head.
He was dressed in a dark suit with an open neck blue and white striped shirt and was sporting a new grey, goatee beard. He appeared to have shed some weight since being remanded in custody last November.
Tweed, from Clonavon Terrace, Ballymena, Co Antrim, has four children of his own and two stepchildren.
He worked as a railway supervisor and Ballymena councillor and rose to prominence as a rugby star during the 1980s and '90s.
However his hardline unionist views made him a divisive character among rugby fans.
Tweed once declared: "I played 30 times for my country (Ulster) and once for Ireland."
It has also been claimed that he boasted about wearing his Ulster top under the green Ireland shirt so the Red Hand of Ulster would be closer to his heart and some supporters said he sang God Save The Queen to himself before each game at Lansdowne Road.
Tweed was also a prominent member of the Orange Order and entered politics under Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party banner after his lodge LOL 496 was prevented from marching through Dunloy during the mid-1990s, close to the village where he grew up.
He was a key figure during the bitter sectarian Harryville dispute where loyalists picketed a Catholic church in Ballymena for nine months.
He has since been expelled from the TUV.
In court, Judge Devlin acknowledged a raft of character references which had been supplied, including from former constituents in Ballymena, but he questioned whether the full extent of Tweed's crimes had been made known to the contributors.
Judge Devlin said: "He was previously highly thought of by many in society which makes the revelation of these offences all the more tragic."
During his submission, prosecution barrister Richard Weir QC noted the impact of the abuse on the two girls.
"It has marred their lives and, sadly, by the look of things, it will continue to mar their lives," he told the court.
Meanwhile, defence barrister Laurence McCrudden said the victim impact assessments were untested, subjective statements and claimed that the character references included every synonym for decency.
Mr McCrudden said: "These offences have cost him his liberty, his job, his position as an elected public servant and are going to weigh extremely heavy on him given the public nature of his fall from grace."
Referring to Tweed's sporting and political achievements, the defence lawyer added: "There are features of this man's life which are diametrically in conflict with the evidence in this case and the conclusions of the jury."
In November, the jury of 10 women and two men took two days of deliberation before convicting Tweed with majority verdicts on 13 counts of child sex abuse including indecent assault, gross indecency and inciting a child to commit an act of gross indecency.
It was not the first time Tweed had stood trial accused of sex abuse.
In 2009, he was acquitted of 10 sex abuse charges against two different young girls. At that time it took the jury of nine women and three men just over an hour to reach their unanimous verdict.
Judge Devlin said he hoped the victims and their families in this case would be able to use the outcome of the trial to move away from the dark shadow cast over their lives by the sexual abuse.
He also praised their resilience and restraint during the proceedings.
On his release from prison Tweed will be subject to restriction and will be banned from working with children or vulnerable adults.