MI5 agent first to testify in north in more than 20 years

6 May 2010
The Irish News

An MI5 agent will today become the first to give evidence in a Northern Ireland court in more than 20 years when he testifies against three Co Armagh men implicated in a Real IRA gun-smuggling plot.

Paul McCaugherty (43), of Beech Court, and Desmond Kearns (44), of Tannaghmore Green, both Lurgan, and Dermot Gregory (41) - also known as Michael Dermot - of Concession Road in Crossmaglen, went on trial yesterday charged with involvement in a plot to smuggle explosives and dozens of weapons into Northern Ireland in 2006.

The alleged plot was uncovered by MI5 agents who made 90 hours of secret recordings of the suspects.

There is expected to be a heavy security presence at Belfast Crown Court as an MI5 agent codenamed 'Amir', who had previously refused to give evidence, appears in the witness box.

In October The Irish News revealed how Amir had refused to give evidence unless he was given £650,000 and a medal from the Queen. He accused his MI5 handlers of betrayal when, despite earlier assurances, he was ordered to testify against the dissident suspects. It is understood that he has since reluctantly agreed to comply after being warned that he could be arrested and forced before the court.

The sting began in 2004 when the agent approached Kearns as he visited a shop in Luxembourg to buy cigarettes. Over the following months Amir and Kearns discussed deals to smuggle cheap cigarettes to Northern Ireland.

At their third meeting Kearns was accompanied by his wife Allison who allegedly asked Amir about buying weapons. When Amir later asked Kearns whether his wife had been serious he played down the discussion but promised to take the offer back "to others at home".

Kearns later confided to Amir that he had previously been approached by MI5 and offered money to spy on associates "back home".

When Amir said he had an associate who could provide weapons Kearns allegedly said he had a friend who might be interested but found it difficult to travel because he was under Special Branch surveillance in Northern Ireland.

During further meetings Kearns is alleged to have said he did not want to become involved in weapons smuggling but to have agreed to meet Amir's weapons expert, 'Ali'. Asked what weapons his friend wanted to buy, Kearns allegedly replied: "Smalls, longs, plastic explosives, detonators and hand grenades."

The agent said he could supply AK47s, sniper rifles, rockets, mines and machines to make guns.

When Ali asked what the weapons would be used for, Kearns allegedly replied "hit and runs" and that dissidents "had to do something to try to restart things".

Kearns then brought Paul McCaugherty to meet Ali in Amsterdam, the court was told. McCaugherty allegedly introduced himself as 'Timothy' and said he wanted to buy explosives, pistols, AK47s, sniper rifles and detonators.

Prosecutors say McCaugherty wanted to secure hand-grenades to throw into police Land Rovers as officers drove around with the rear doors open in summer.

When the men met again later that year McCaugherty said he had money problems. He said there was a restaurant run by an Irish woman in Portugal which Ali could have if he could persuade her to hand over the deeds.

The court was told that the deeds were in the names of south Armagh woman Teresa Murphy and her then partner, Owen McNamee but that Gregory had supplied the cash to buy the bar.

Murphy later told police she received a telephone call from Gregory in 2006 telling her that he wanted the deeds to be handed over to him.

Within days two men claiming to be from the Real IRA came to her house and demanded the deeds.

They said the bar belonged to the Real IRA and that she and her daughter would be killed unless she handed them over, the court was told.

Kearns, McCaugherty and Gregory were arrested in June 2006.

When McCaugherty's home was searched receipts from his wife's credit card were found to have paid for his European trips. A note containing Murphy's personal details was also discovered.

McCaugherty refused to give a statement during police questioning, claiming he feared that legal discussions with his solicitor were being secretly recorded by officers.

Gregory went to police in November 2006 claiming that he had bought the restaurant with money from his father's estate but that he had been threatened by the Real IRA after an acrimonious split with his partner.

He claimed that the Real IRA had then offered to recover the restaurant for a fee. He denied threatening Murphy and claimed that he had handed over the deeds under duress.

The trial continues.

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