Made crucial error in trusting 'Big Yank'

 

Cut off from his former comrades McKevitt fell back on his ownnarrow paramilitary experience, writes Diarmaid MacDermott.

Michael McKevitt, the first person convicted in the Republic of directing terrorism, is a terrorist leader who honed his skills in the Provisional IRA for a quarter of a century before setting up the renegade "Real IRA" in 1997.

A native of Dundalk, Co Louth, McKevitt (53), joined the fledgling Provisional IRA in the early 1970s and initially was involved in moving weapons and the occasional feud with the Official IRA. However, his commanders recognised his organisational skills and he rose up the ranks to become quartermaster of the northern command in the late 1970s. As quartermaster for the IRA's main operational command, McKevitt was involved in sanctioning the devastating attack at Warrenpoint, Co Down, in August, 1979, in which 18 British soldiers were blown up by IRA bombs. He later pointed out the site of the attack and boasted of his role to FBI agent David Rupert.

McKevitt's rise to the forefront of the Provisional leadership was recognised when he was appointed quartermaster general in 1984 and given a key role in the IRA's most ambitious project.

As quartermaster-general he masterminded perhaps the Provisionals most audacious enterprise - the smuggling into Ireland in 1985-86 of four shipments of arms and explosives, presented to the IRA by Col Gadafy in revenge for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's support for US attacks on the Libyan leader's regime.

McKevitt is known to have visited Tripoli to supervise the top-secret operation. The Libyan arms - 134 tonnes of weapons and explosives - were smuggled in four shipments and landed on the Arklow coast before being stored under the direction of McKevitt in a number of large purpose-built bunkers in the south-west and midlands.

The Libyan operation was only discovered by security forces when the French authorities stopped the Eksund, loaded with 150 tonnes of weapons, off the French coast in October 1997.

McKevitt's role in the arms shipments was crucial to the operation of the Provisional IRA as a terrorist force for the next 10 years. The haul smuggled into Ireland and subsequently stored in the Republic, before being broken up into smaller caches for use in Northern Ireland and Britain, gave the Provisionals a qualitative leap forward.

Included were four tonnes of Semtex explosive - which the Provisionals used as part of home-made bombs, mortars and booby traps - 1,200 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 25 heavy machine guns, 60 light machine guns, and millions of rounds of ammunition. Security sources estimate the IRA still has about half of the weaponry supplied by Libya.

The Libyan operation ensured McKevitt's central role in the Provisional IRA leadership. That was cemented by his marriage to Bernadette Sands, a sister of Bobby Sands.

Despite his key role in the Provisional IRA, McKevitt remained a background figure. He was stopped and detained many times by gardaí but was always polite and affable.

McKevitt was never an active "player" - someone who took an active part in terrorist operations. He was too valuable as an organiser and keeper of the IRA arsenal to risk on active service. However, it was as keeper of the IRA's arsenal, and implicitly its ability to wage war, that McKevitt found himself coming into increasing conflict with the Adams/McGuinness leadership.

The crunch came at an IRA convention in Gweedore, Co Donegal, in October, 1997, called to approve acceptance of the Mitchell principles which would allow the IRA leadership to sanction arms decommissioning.

McKevitt and other members of the executive opposed any moves to decommission weapons and accused the army council of running down the organisation's military capacity.

After the convention voted to support the Adams/McGuinness line, McKevitt resigned from the executive. He took several key members of its "engineering department" and activists in Armagh, Louth and Dublin to form what became known as the "Real IRA".

The title "Real IRA" is a media invention. McKevitt's group referred to themselves as "Óglaigh na hÉireann".

Despite the defection of several experienced terrorists to the new grouping, McKevitt failed in his attempt to split the Provisional IRA and the Adams/McGuinness leadership maintained their control over the republican movement.

Throughout 1998 the "Real IRA" mounted several bomb attacks in Northern Ireland but more frequently than not were frustrated by the success of the gardaí in foiling planned operations.

However, the new terror group achieved its aim of a place in the annals of the Troubles when a car-bomb exploded in Omagh on the afternoon of August 15th, 1998. McKevitt later told David Rupert that the bomb was a joint operation between the "Real IRA" and the Continuity IRA; the "Real IRA" had stolen the car used in the attack and built the bomb, while the CIRA had chosen the target and delivered it. McKevitt told Rupert he claimed "20 per cent responsibility" for Omagh and gave "80 per cent responsibility" to the CIRA.

The Omagh atrocity and associated public outrage forced McKevitt and the "Real IRA" to announce a ceasefire - in reality it was attempting to regroup.

McKevitt decided to formalise the already existing links between his "Real IRA" and the Continuity IRA, and to bring former INLA terrorists and disaffected Provisionals into "Óglaigh na hÉireann."

McKevitt told Rupert of an "army conference" on a beach in the Inishowen peninsula in June 1999 to formally launch the new organisation. McKevitt said he had taken about 98 per cent of the CIRA, all of the former "Real IRA", some INLA and "a few members of the Provisional IRA".

"They had licked their wounds and hopefully had got by Omagh," Rupert said.

It was a dissident Derry republican, Micky Donnelly, who introduced Rupert to McKevitt. McKevitt made a crucial error of judgment in placing his trust in the "Big Yank." Cut off from his former comrades in the Provisional republican movement and their broader political experience, McKevitt appears to have fallen back on his own narrow paramilitary experience and to have let his defences slip.

Desperate for new technology to relaunch his terror campaign and anxious to avoid further Omaghs, McKevitt accepted Rupert's claims to be a computer expert and asked him to obtain computer equipment in the US. McKevitt wanted to launch "cyber terrorism" and to bring the campaign to Britain primarily. He used Rupert to bring funds from sympathisers in the US and appointed him as his army council's representative in the US.

Rupert met McKevitt on up to 20 occasions, installed computer equipment at his home in Blackrock, Co Louth, and attended army council meetings at a house in Greenore, Co Louth, and "engineers' meetings" at a house in Dundalk. Unknown to McKevitt most of those meetings were the subject of Garda surveillance and Rupert was reporting back almost immediately to his FBI and MI5 handlers.

McKevitt was arrested on March 29th, 2001, when Special Branch detectives paid an early morning call to his home in Co Louth.

The man, who for years had eluded prosecution and who helped run the Provisional IRA's war for the best part of 25 years, and who established the most dangerous opposition to the Provisionals' peace strategy, was finally caught by his own carelessness and hubris.

Last October McKevitt and his supporters in Portlaoise Prison called on the outside leadership to "stand down with ignominy".

The group set up by McKevitt after his departure from the Provisional IRA in 1997 now has two wings and has been infiltrated by three security agencies - the Garda Síochána, the FBI and MI5.