The terrorist group behind the Omagh bombing made several attempts to trace an FBI agent preparing to give evidence against its alleged leader, a top garda told Dublin's Special Criminal court today.
Detective Chief Superintendent Martin Callinan told the court there was a “real and very substantive” threat to American David Rupert and that the Real IRA had made a number of “extreme efforts” to find him and members of his family.
“I have no doubt of the lengths the Real IRA will go identifying people who supply information to the gardai and the retribution that follows.
“There are several examples of it,” said Mr Callinan.
Rupert, who was recruited by the FBI and British intelligence to relay information to them after infiltrating hard-line Irish republican groups, is said to have demanded a two million dollar deal to testify against Michael McKevitt, who is due to stand trial early next year on charges of directing terrorism
The 51-year-old former IRA quartermaster from the Irish borderside town of Dundalk, Co Louth, is the first person to be charged with the offence in the Irish Republic under the terms of legislation introduced by the Government after the 1998 bombing of Omagh.
The Real IRA claimed responsibility for the attack on the Co Tyrone town, when 29 people, including a pregnant mother of twins died and more than 200 others were injured.
Mr Rupert is set to be the key witness in the trial of McKevitt, whose defence team have made it clear they will challenge the credibility of the American.
Mr Callinan, head of the Gardai's intelligence and security section, said he had “great concerns” about the safety of Mr Rupert
He told a preliminary hearing linked to the trial at the no-jury court that the exposure of names of personnel from America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and the British security services, who have provided sworn affidavits in the case against McKevitt would “place their lives in real danger”.
The chief superintendent said his section of the police monitored subversive and criminal activity in the Irish Republic and there was a file on Michael McKevitt with information going back three decades.
McKevitt, who has also been charged with membership of an illegal organisation, is claimed to be the leader of the Real IRA, formed by dissident former members of the IRA after that organisation began its ceasefire as part of the current Northern Ireland peace process.
The preliminary hearing – focusing on arguments over the disclosure of documents presented in the case against McKevitt – has heard from prosecutor George Birmingham of a series of meetings Mr Rupert, now a protected witness, recruited to pass on information on behalf of the FBI and the British intelligence services, had attended together with McKevitt and other hard-line Irish republican movement members of a period of years.
At one such meeting, Mr McKevitt was alleged to have said that the Omagh attack was a joint operation involving both the Real IRA and fellow dissidents in the Continuity IRA.
On other occasions he talked of an American who “if you wanted to have Tony Blair assassinated, is your man,” spoke about an unspecified incident that would “overshadow Omagh,” and referred to terrorist incidents in Northern Ireland and a bombing in Hammersmith, London.
Mr Birmingham told the court’s three judges that Mr Rupert had first gone to Ireland in the early 1990s, together with a political activist girlfriend from Florida, who had a strong interest in Irish affairs.
He later agreed to collect and pass on information, firstly for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States, and later for British intelligence.
He added the claim that Mr Rupert had been described by a New York police officer as “an extremely street-smart criminal, who let others take the risks and would do anything for money.”
Mr Hartnett said there were signs that Mr Rupert had been suspected of smuggling in the United States, and asked ‘Was a deal done?’
Mr Hartnett was told yesterday by Sir Ivor Roberts, the British ambassador to Ireland, that certain papers relating to the McKevitt case could not be handed to the defence “in essence because of the desire to avoid putting lives at risk and prevent the undermining of efforts to prevent and disrupt terrorism”.
FBI officers have told the court there are no records of criminal activity on the part of Mr Rupert.
The preliminary hearing is expected to end with a reserved judgment on the documents issue after the conclusion of legal submissions tomorrow.