'Real IRA' has not gone away
A blow was struck in defence of democracy yesterday when Michael McKevitt was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for directing the activities of the "Real IRA".
He was also found guilty of membership of that illegal organisation between August 1999, and October 2000, when more than 100 incidents involving weapons and explosives took place. The charges fell outside the date of the worst terrorist atrocity in Northern Ireland - the Omagh bombing that killed 29 people and injured 220 more in August 1998 - but the events of that day were in the minds of most court observers.
It was the first time the charge of 'directing the activities of an illegal organisation' had come before the Special Criminal Court, which sits without a jury. The provision was introduced by the Coalition Government in emergency legislation following the Omagh bombing and was designed to deal specifically with those "armchair generals" who might not be directly implicated in planting bombs or in other murders.
Another unusual feature of the case was that the key prosecution witness, David Rupert, had been in the pay of both the FBI and MI5 and had infiltrated the "Real IRA" as a double agent.
During the course of the trial, McKevitt engaged in a number of publicity stunts. At first he dismissed his legal team, when a preliminary decision went against him. Then he refused to appear in court or to challenge the evidence of prosecution witnesses. On being found guilty, however, he claimed not to have received a fair trial. And he applied for State legal aid in order to appeal the sentence.
Of course, McKevitt is entitled under the law to behave in this fashion. But the evidence adduced during his trial and the unambiguous findings of the three-judge Special Criminal Court should leave the public in no doubt that justice has been done on this occasion.
A former quartermaster general of the Provisional IRA, McKevitt resigned from that organisation in 1997. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the "Real IRA". And he opposed a cessation of violence as the two Governments and the Northern parties negotiated the terms of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Following the endorsement of that political settlement by large majorities on both sides of the Border - thereby removing any claim by republicans to legitimacy for their struggle - the "Real IRA" continued its paramilitary operations.
McKevitt is a man who believes in the use of illegal force for political purposes. The paramilitary organisation he helped to establish continues to arm and to train recruits.
The "Real IRA" has not gone away. It is a serious threat to democratic society on this island. The jailing of McKevitt for 20 years was fully justified. And if a single member of the "Real IRA" abandons the bomb and the bullet as a consequence, it will be a bonus.