Two men were jailed today after a dissident republican gun smuggling plot was uncovered by an MI5 sting operation.
Paul McCaugherty, 44, of Beech Court, Lurgan, Co Armagh, was found guilty of attempting to import weapons and explosives and given 20 years. He sought the equipment for the Real IRA from an arms dealer who was a security services agent.
Dermot Declan Gregory, 42, of Concession Road, Crossmaglen, was found guilty of making a Portuguese property available for the purpose of terrorism. He was sentenced to four years.
The UK's Home Secretary Theresa May warned last month that the threat from dissident republicans was substantial and urged public vigilance.
Mr Justice Anthony Hart at Belfast Crown Court told McCaugherty: “Any attempt to purchase and import such a large amount of weapons and explosives for terrorist purposes must be regarded as exceptionally serious because of the potential for murder and destruction on a large scale.”
Last week the Home Secretary warned of heightened threats from dissident republicans.
The head of MI5 said earlier that dissident republicans could attempt to mount a new wave of terrorist attacks on the UK.
Jonathan Evans, the director-general of the security service, said there had been a “persistent rise” in “activity and ambition” by dissident groups in Northern Ireland over the past three years.
As he was led away today, a muscular and shaven-headed McCaugherty raised one arm to friends and family in the heavily-guarded courtroom. He showed no emotion as he was sentenced.
The court heard he set out to purchase a substantial quantity of weapons and explosives in Europe on behalf of the Real IRA.
He was introduced to a person he knew as Ali who he believed was a genuine arms dealer but in reality was an MI5 agent.
McCaugherty agreed to purchase 100kg (220lb) of plastic explosives, 28 AK assault rifles, 20 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 10 sniper rifles and two pistols.
During his negotiations with Ali he handed over €45,970 in cash as part-payment for the proposed delivery.
The security services operation lasted from August 2004 to June 2006.
Mr Justice Hart said he was satisfied that at all times McCaugherty was acting as a senior and trusted member of the Real IRA.
The judge said: “McCaugherty’s admissions to Ali reveal that he has been an active and energetic terrorist for a considerable period of time and one who was prepared to go to great lengths to obtain weapons, as can be seen from the fact that he made numerous trips to meet Ali to destinations as far apart as Amsterdam, Bruges and Istanbul.”
McCaugherty was sentenced for seven counts of conspiracy to possess firearms, explosives and ammunition with the intent to endanger life or cause serious damage to property, belonging to a proscribed organisation, using money for the purposes of terrorism and entering into an arrangement to make property, a restaurant in Portugal, available for the purposes of terrorism.
Mr Justice Hart said his efforts to provide property for the Real IRA were significant.
It was claimed during the trial that the premises was purchased by a third party with money provided by Gregory.
The third party ran the restaurant until 2006 when the Real IRA sought to gain control of it by obtaining the deeds with the assistance of Gregory with the intention of selling the property to raise funds.
The judge said: “Money is the life blood of any terrorist organisation and anyone who makes property available to a terrorist organisation helps that organisation further its objectives of murder and destruction and the punishment must reflect this.”