After trial, dissidents remain committed

 

Michael McKevitt will be sentenced today for directing terrorism and "Real IRA" membership, but it's unlikely to be the last we hear of him or the dissident republican group.

His legal team are set to go to the Court of Appeal and perhaps, ultimately, to the European Court of Human Rights. Sources close to McKevitt say he "isn't the sort of person who will just shrug his shoulders and serve his sentence. He will fight this every inch of the way."

Yesterday, though, there were few voices expressing concern about the conviction. It was a day for the relatives of the Omagh bombing - who have endured such intense suffering - to have their say.

McKevitt has never faced any charges in connection with Omagh, and his conviction for "Real IRA" membership and directing terrorism apply to dates after the atrocity.

However, as the most senior and high-profile dissident republican since the "Real IRA" was formed six years ago, he has become a focal point for the families.

Ironically, there is now hostility between the "Real IRA" leadership and McKevitt.

Last year a group of "Real IRA" prisoners in Portlaoise, including McKevitt, issued a statement denouncing the paramilitary group's leadership, whom they accused of corruption and lacking political direction.

The charges were denied by the "Real IRA" leadership, who insist that, apart from the prisoners' departure, the organisation remains intact. "There was no split outside the jail. Our volunteers have remained loyal," said a "Real IRA" source.

The paramilitary group was committed to an armed campaign until the British withdrew from the North and partition ended, he claimed.

"The conviction of any individual, even if they had remained a member of Oglaigh nahEireann, will change nothing," he said. "The British alone have the power to end the conflict - by leaving our country."

Det Chief Sup Martin Callinan also said that while McKevitt's conviction was "a significant result", dissident groups remained a threat.

Mr John McDonagh, a producer of an Irish-American radio show in New York and member of the Irish Freedom Committee which raises funds for republican prisoners, met FBI agent Mr Dave Rupert, whom he denounced.

He said McKevitt's conviction would not cause a rethink among dissidents.

"There have always been trials like this, and people have always gone to jail. It's just part of republican history, and those who become involved with the republican movement know the risks," he said.

While the "Real IRA" remains committed to continuing its campaign and has units in Belfast, Derry and Cos Armagh, Tyrone and Down, it has not managed to carry out any "high-profile" attacks for a considerable period.

The record of the security forces on both sides of the Border against the organisation is impressive. It remains a thorn in the side of the authorities, but not a major one. Security sources say the organisation is capable of carrying out sporadic attacks but not mounting a sustained campaign.

According to Mr Rupert, McKevitt foresaw the "Real IRA" developing very differently. As the former quartermaster general of the Provisional IRA, he took Uzi sub-machineguns, Semtex and pistols when he resigned in 1997.

He hoped to bring the "Real IRA" into the 21st century and was opposed to republicans continuing to use outdated military methods. The "Real IRA" was developing bomb-detonation techniques involving laptop computers linked to mobile phones and personal organisers.

McKevitt wanted to win Iraqi sponsorship for the organisation and develop a range of international links, including with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. He talked of taking the war "to the steps of Stormont" and the City of London. He planned an assassination campaign against police in the North.

There was talk of cyberterrorism and assassinating Tony Blair. Such paramilitary activities are currently beyond any dissident organisation.

Representatives of several human rights groups monitored McKevitt's trial amid accusations that it was "politically motivated". Mr McDonagh said he was disappointed at the lack of controversy the trial had caused in the Republic.

"Southern politicians have denounced Diplock courts, yet no jury sits in the Special Criminal Court. Southern politicians have run to Colombia to monitor the trial there, yet there has been a complete lack of interest in events on their own doorstep which certainly need watching," he said.

The month-long trial centred on the credibility of Mr Rupert. At 6ft 7ins and 20 stone, he barely managed to squeeze into the witness box.

He gave his evidence in a calm, laid-back manner and was remarkably unruffled by the most intensive cross-examination by defence counsel, Mr Hugh Hartnett, even managing to return jibes.

Mr Rupert (51), from upstate New York, near the Canadian border, was involved in a range of businesses over three decades including haulage, insurance, construction and catering. He was twice declared bankrupt and twice arrested for "bad cheques". The court heard about dozens of "small people" who had suffered in their business dealings with him.

He first visited Ireland in 1992 with an Irish-American girlfriend, developing links with Co Donegal republicans. From there, he progressed to the "higher-ups".

He was recruited by the FBI in 1994. So far, he has been paid at least $1.25 million.