Real IRA chief caught in M15 weapons sting

1 July 2010
The Daily Telegraph
Gordon Rayner

A REAL IRA commander has been convicted of trying to smuggle weapons and explosives into Northern Ireland after being snared by a MI5 sting operation.

Paul McCaugherty, 43, was caught trying to buy an arsenal of weapons from an agent posing as a Middle Eastern arms dealer.

The security service agent, known as Ali, spent two years meeting McCaugherty and bugging 90 hours of conversations, which became the cornerstone of the prosecution's case at Belfast Crown Court.

McCaugherty, of Lurgan, Co Armagh, was convicted by Mr Justice Hart, presiding over the non-jury trial, who said the case against the Republican dissident was "extremely compelling".

The judge described the MI5 operation as an "elaborate and successful" one in which agent Ali had "skilfully and convincingly played the role of an arms dealer". It was the first time in 20 years that MI5 agents had given evidence in a court in Belfast.

The judge said McCaugherty "was one of a group of terrorists determined to buy arms and explosives to carry out attacks on members of the security forces in Northern Ireland".

The evidence included tapes recorded between 2004 and 2006 in which McCaugherty described himself as deputy commander of the Real IRA, and asked for equipment, including armour-piercing weapons and plastic explosive.

The trial had heard that the Real IRA was using a restaurant on the Algarve in Portugal as a global hub for weapons shipments to Ireland. McCaugherty met the agent in Portugal and other locations including Amsterdam and Istanbul. He agreed to pay £87,000 for 100kg (220lb) of explosives and detonators, 20 AK-47 assault rifles, 20 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 10 sniper rifles and 20 pistols with silencers. No weapons ever changed hands. The Real IRA also had a purpose-built trailer to take the weapons from Portugal to a safe house in France, which McCaugherty bought to store the weapons before they were to be moved on to Ireland.

He is said to have told the agents his organisation had made the bomb used in Omagh in 1998, but had given it to others who had "screwed it up". He also said that police in Northern Ireland left the back doors of their Land Rovers open during the summer and he would target them by tossing grenades inside.

A second defendant, Dermot Declan Gregory, was convicted of buying the restaurant with the intention of selling it off and giving the proceeds to the Real IRA. Charges against a third man, Desmond Kearns, were thrown out two weeks ago after the trial judge ruled the case against him amounted to entrapment by MI5.

McCaugherty and Gregory, 41, of Crossmaglen, Co Armagh, will be sentenced at a later date.

In May, Dermot Ahern, the Irish justice minister, warned that dissident Republicans still posed a "severe" threat after police foiled a terrorist attack on the Republic's border with Ulster.

Paul McCaugherty tried to buy an arsenal of weapons from an agent posing as an arms dealer

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