Supergrass trial: 8 officers accompany UVF chief to dock
Loyalist leader Mark Haddock was kept apart from 13 co-accused as one of the biggest paramilitary murder trials in decades in Northern Ireland began.
Eight prison officers surrounded the 42-year-old Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) chief as he was led from the cells into Belfast Crown Court and seated away from the dock containing the other defendants.
The 14 face a litany of charges connected to the killing of rival loyalist leader Tommy English in October 2000.
Haddock, dressed in a blue shirt and sporting a goatee beard, gave the thumbs up sign as he sat smiling in Court 12 ahead of the start of proceedings.
He is in protective custody over fears for his safety. Two of Haddock's co-accused sitting yards away in the dock were previously accused of trying to kill him in a failed assassination bid five years ago.
All 14 spoke to confirm their names as the non-jury trial began in front of Justice John Gillen.
Police staged a major security operation both outside and inside the court amid fears the trial could trigger unrest in loyalist communities, after a summer already blighted by violence in working class Protestant neighbourhoods.
A token protest of around 10 people held banners outside the venue, though supporters with their faces covered - including one wearing a Halloween mask - entered the court building.
Loyalist spokesman Ken Wilkinson, from the Families Against Supergrass Trials group, said the hearing was a return to the controversial mass trials of the 1980s.
"We have a devolved government in Northern Ireland," he said.
"We have a local justice minister, but we have not moved on."
There is simmering anger within loyalism that Haddock, a former police informant, and the other defendants will be tried on evidence based largely on the testimony of two of their original co-accused, brothers David and Robert Stewart from Newtownabbey, Co Antrim.
The self-confessed UVF members both turned Crown witnesses to gain a lesser sentence.
Supporters of the 14 accused have likened the case to the so-called supergrass trials in the 1980s, which saw both loyalist and republican paramilitaries jailed on the evidence of former colleagues who turned state's evidence.
Banners denouncing supergrass trials were erected in loyalist areas in Belfast last week in a visible sign of the heightened tensions within sections of the community.
Similar banners were held by demonstrators outside the court today.
Special measures have already been introduced ahead of the non-jury trial, with witnesses and members of English's family due to be kept in a secure room in a different building, linked to Court 12 in Laganside courthouse by video.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is also making plans in the event of trouble in potential flashpoints such as east and north Belfast and south-east Antrim.
Ulster Defence Association boss English, 40, was gunned down in front of his wife and children in his north Belfast home.
He was one of a number of loyalist paramilitaries killed during a bloody feud between the UVF and UDA.
It is understood the trial could last up to three months.
In January 2007 Haddock's role as a police special branch agent was outlined following the publication of an investigation by former police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan.
She found that police colluded with Haddock's Mount Vernon UVF gang in north Belfast - a group that was behind more than a dozen murders in the area.
Ahead of the trial, Haddock had been on bail at an address outside Northern Ireland due to concerns for his safety.
On his return to the region last week, he agreed to be placed in protective custody back in jail.