The men are believed to include a senior IRA quartermaster, aged 53, who was arrested in 1987 on board the arms ship the Eksund while carrying Libyan weapons and explosives to Ireland, and later served a jail term in France. A fitter, married with six children and living in Tallaght, south-west Dublin, he was a key intermediary with Libya in securing arms consignments for the IRA. He was also held in Ireland in 1976 after a large arms find in Kildare.
Another arrested man, thought to be a senior IRA logistics expert and bomb-maker, owns a south Dublin engineering firm and lives in the affluent suburb of Foxrock. A south Dublin factory premises was being searched yesterday.
Last night, seven people were being questioned in Dublin and Portlaoise under Ireland's anti-terrorist legislation.
The Laois raid happened late on Thursday at a farm a mile from Clonaslee. It followed four days surveillance by a specialist anti-terrorist squad. One of the three men present produced a gun but was disarmed and no shots were fired.
The find, one of the most important breakthroughs by the Irish police in recent years, followed a tip-off received when the Garda appealed for information following the IRA killing of special branch garda, Jerry McCabe, and the wounding of a colleague in the abortive robbery of an Adare postal truck two weeks ago.
Gardai, who will disclose the Clonaslee haul when forensic experts have finished examining the farm, confirmed that they had found substantial amounts of explosives, timers and electrical components used in mortars. It was unclear if the mortars were destined for use in an attack in Northern Ireland or in Britain.
When the Garda last yearraided the same Clonaslee farm, they found nothing, but several smaller caches of arms have been discovered in the Laois area in recent years.
John Bruton, the Taoiseach, in Florence for the EU summit, congratulated the Garda on the find. He said the question of whether Sinn Fein supported "armed struggle" was "a practical matter of life and death". He warned that manufacture of arms was "inconsistent with promises not to use force or the threat of force", a reference to Sinn Fein's acceptance of the Mitchell principles.
The Garda discovery came as a senior Scotland Yard officer gave a pessimistic view of the peace process in an address to an international policing conference in Dublin Castle, that was attended by representatives of 27 forces from around the world.
Assistant Commissioner David Veness, who since 1991 has been in charge of Metropolitan Police specialist crime squads, said: "Domestically, we are resigned to the long-term threat of the Provisional IRA. We regard ceasefires as periods of terrorist preparation."
The cost of the IRA's bombing of Manchester could be as much as pounds 500m, civic leaders said yesterday. The full extent of the damage emerged as store owners in the Arndale centre were told that checks for asbestos had to be carried out before they re-gained access to their premises.Reuse content