Belfast Telegraph

MLA criticised over reference for terror chief
Cobain praised jailed loyalist's community work

By David Gordon
07 September 2004

A senior unionist politician was under fire today over a character reference for a notorious UDA terrorist.

UUP Assemblyman Fred Cobain was quoted in a High Court ruling as praising the community work of leading Shankill loyalist Thomas Potts.

The MLA, who represents his party on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, today rejected criticism from the SDLP and said he had been simply stating a fact.

The court judgment on 35-year-old Potts was delivered last week by Lord Chief Justice Kerr and concluded with the UDA man receiving an increased jail sentence for a blackmail offence.

Potts, from Dover Street in the Shankill, is a former ally of Johnny Adair.

He has a criminal record dating back to the 1980s, including a 1993 conviction for conspiracy to murder.

He was jailed again last year for his part in an attack on the Rex Bar on the Shankill Road which sparked the 2001 feud between the UDA and UVF.

In his ruling on the blackmail case, Lord Chief Justice Kerr said 11 character references had been previously provided for Potts, in relation to a bail application.

Leading figures in the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group paid tribute to his work in the Shankill area while an "evangelist" stated that he had taken an interest in spiritual matters while in prison, the court was told.

The judge also stated: "Fred Cobain MLA commented on the offender's valuable input into community projects."

Lord Chief Justice Kerr said "glowing references" for Potts had to be set against his "long and relevant criminal record".

SDLP councillor Martin Morgan today questioned Mr Cobain's judgment.

"This man obviously did not merit the references that were given," Mr Morgan said.

"I think it affects the credibility of a politician, if he is involved in providing a reference for someone who is up to his neck in paramilitary activity."

Mr Cobain said he could not recall the circumstances surrounding his past statement about Potts' community work. He also said the matter dated back a number of years.

The MLA added: "My views on the UVF and UDA are well known. As far as I'm concerned, any paramilitary activity is wrong and if police have any evidence against paramilitaries they should prosecute them.

"But if people ask me, did Thomas Potts do community work on the lower Shankill, then the answer to that is yes."

Potts was arrested for blackmail in August 2002 while working as a community worker and already on bail for the Rex Bar attack. He had tried to extort £10,000 from an undercover police officer posing as a building contractor.

Lord Chief Justice Kerr said the offence "had all the characteristics of a protection racket". His original sentence was increased from three to five years.

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