Sir Basil Kelly: Judge who presided over one of the biggest IRA 'supergrass' trials, dies

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One of the most dramatic episodes in the life of Basil Kelly, a High Court and then appeal judge in NorthernIreland, and indeed in the eventful history of the province's legal system during the recent Troubles, came in August 1983. Presiding over one ofthe biggest IRA cases ever to come before the courts, Kelly was equipped with certain extras, which included a bullet-proof vest and SAS bodyguards. In court he was flanked bytwo vigilant police officers armed with M1 carbines.

It was a huge "supergrass" case, with the one-time IRA member Christopher Black giving evidence against almost 40 alleged former associates. Those who were present recall an atmosphere of almost electric hatred as a packed court room held the judge and the police and, in poisonous proximity, scores of republicans ranged in the dock and public gallery.

No one doubted that Basil Kelly was a marked man: the IRA had already assassinated a number of legal figures, declaring them to be part of what republicans in those days called "the British war machine". Earlier that year they had killed Judge William Doyle, gunning him down as he left church after mass. Some years earlier they had shot and killed one of Kelly's close friends, the magistrate Martin McBirney. A few years later they would use a landmine to kill the senior judge Maurice Gibson and his wife.

On this occasion, Kelly handed down sentences of more than 4,000 years' imprisonment to 22 people after one of the longest trials in UK legal history. He sentenced one leading republican to almost 1,000 years in jail. Years later the majority of those convicted were to be freed on appeal as senior judges registered their view that the "supergrass system" was offensive to human rights and unsuited to Northern Ireland. No one who witnessed the court proceedings of the time was left in any doubt that this was one of the battlefields of Northern Ireland's long undeclared war, and that judges were very much in the front line. Basil Kelly lived to the age of 87: if the IRA had had its way his death would have come many years earlier. Instead, he outlasted them.

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