Four suspected Real IRA men were arrested following a tip-off that the dissident republican terror group put on a show of strength for TV cameras, a court heard today.
Armed police swooped on a car carrying the four-man gang from Derry as they travelled south of the Irish border hours after four BBC journalists were detained in the area.
Alleged Real IRA members Gary Donnelly, (aged 38), of Kildrum Gardens, Michael Gallagher, (aged 29), of Sackville Court, 40-year-old Martin Francis O’Neill, of Colmcille Court, and Patrick John McDaid, (aged 38), from Marlborough Street, all in Derry city, have pleaded not guilty to membership of the paramilitary group.
Dublin’s non-jury Special Criminal Court heard that two of the four accused - Donnelly and O’Neill – could be positively identified in a press conference staged for the BBC and later admitted assisting documentary makers.
An FBI agent will also give expert evidence that Gallagher was the third masked man on tape, Patrick Marrinan SC said.
Opening the prosecution’s case, the barrister said a major garda operation was launched by local officers and Dublin’s crime and security branch after a tip-off that the Real IRA planned to meet journalists in Donegal.
Three masked men, one armed, posed for the cameras.
Mr Marrinan said gardai posted at Bridgend, near the Donegal and Derry border, on March 15 saw four men – later identified as BBC journalists – enter a pub at 8.15pm.
It was claimed that within 45 minutes two of the accused, Donnelly and O’Neill, joined the group in McIntyre’s The 19th Hole.
Mr Marrinan alleged the six men then got into a white Transit van, which had just crossed the border from Derry, and returned to Northern Ireland.
Mr Justice Paul Butler, presiding, was told that the van was next seen when it returned to Bridgend two hours later.
Armed gardaí from the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) intercepted the vehicle, believing it was carrying firearms. Seven occupants – including the four reporters – were arrested and questioned.
A balaclava and gloves, four notebooks, voice recorder, cameras, memory cards, tapes and tripods were among the items seized from the vehicle.
The court heard that the four accused were arrested the following day when a silver Volkswagen Passat was stopped in Bridgend.
Mr Marrinan said that, when questioned by detectives, Donnelly and O’Neill admitted they were assisting the makers of a BBC Spotlight documentary and all four denied membership of an unlawful organisation.
The barrister said 53 photographs, recovered from a memory card, of a press conference “speak for themselves”. He said the images, which had been taken between 9.50pm and 10.45pm on March 15, featured three men in paramilitary-style uniforms and balaclavas, with one holding a firearm.
He also alleged that a voice recording of the press conference on a voice recorder would “put beyond any doubt about that was transpiring at the time”.
Two video cameras also showed footage of the event, he maintained, one focused on the paramilitary and one on a plain clothes interviewer.
“The prosecution’s case would be that two of the accused are identified positively as being present in the background and are seen in a doorway in stills that were taken from a digital camera,” continued Mr Marrinan.
“These accused are Gary Donnelly and Martin O’Neill.”
Almost 80 witnesses are expected to be called at the trial, which is listed to last 20 days.