Dapper disguise of inept terror chief who aspired to republican hall of fame

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The Independent Online

The McKevitt trial's improbable cast of "characters" included Iraq, MI5, rogue Balkan regimes, the Garda Special Branch, the Tamil Tigers, the FBI, the former Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega, the French Foreign Legion and the Mafia.

All were said to have played a part in the careers or aspirations of either the star witness, David Rupert, an FBI undercover agent, or of the defendant Michael McKevitt, boss of the Real IRA.

Mr Rupert, at 6ft 5in tall, cut a striking figure in court, yet the man at the centre of this dazzling array of international exotica, McKevitt himself, cut a curiously colourless figure.

On the first day of the trial, I did not recognise him as he brushed against me while making his way through the court. At republican gatherings he used to wear a baseball cap tugged down low and the collar of his windcheater turned up.

But in the court he resembled a small-time estate agent, or perhaps an insurance salesman: bald and bespectacled, sporting a blue blazer with silver buttons and a respectable tie. He carried a folder, pens and a yellow highlighter.

He had gone from the sinister to the clerical, clearly keen to appear an ordinary sort, part of society rather than a danger to it; harmless.

You wouldn't have thought his aim in life was to liberate Ireland by violent means: you'd have guessed his highest ambition was membership of a prestigious golf club. His wife, who most days sat in the public gallery, was more glamorous. As the sister of Bobby Sands, the hunger-strike martyr, she is in her own eyes a republican aristocrat. She had the navy trouser suit, neatly pressed, the hair carefully blow-dried, the slightly haughty manner. When her husband was led out of the court to the cells they would touchingly wave to each other. She listened carefully when Mr Rupert mentioned her in his evidence, as he repeatedly did. She runs her husband's political wing.

Mr Rupert's singular life has included four marriages, three bankruptcies, a business career described by the judges as "very chequered," and a career as an FBI informer. His future will also be singular, since the Real IRA would love to kill him.

He once declined to pay back a $2,000 (£1,250) loan to one of his several father-in-laws; during a bad year his well-insured house burnt down; he drove a Rolls-Royce in a small town where he owed a lot of people money. This is not a saintly figure.

There is a saintly figure in a small park next to the courthouse - a doleful statue of the Maid of Erin, recording that here stood Dublin's Newgate prison, "associated in dark and evil days with the doing to death of confessors of Irish liberty, who gave their lives to vindicate their country's right to national independence".

The inscription explains that it was erected "to honour their motives and to inculcate a grateful reverence in Irish minds for sacrifices thus nobly made for freedom".

McKevitt believes he should be up on a similar plinth, not up in court. He feels strongly that his republican record as quartermaster for the mainstream IRA is a glorious thing.

He established the Real IRA after, in his mind, colleagues such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness grew soft and sold out the cause. His fidelity, he would feel, means he should be in a republican hall of fame rather than a dock.

Yet the evidence exposed McKevitt as a seriously inept terrorist leader. As IRA quartermaster he had a talent for burying guns where no one would find them. Once he came to head his own group, things went awry.

He took Mr Rupert at face value, for example, confiding in him from their very first meeting in an almost pathetically trusting manner. He was clearly way out of his depth at people skills, at sizing up strangers.

According to Mr Rupert, he was "horribly upset" about the Omagh bomb - though he explained that another republican group, Continuity IRA, was really 80 per cent to blame for what happened.

It is worth remembering just what happened, in the words of one witness: "There were people, or actually pieces of people, bodies being washed in. They were just basically piling up at the corner where the gully was. Bits and pieces of legs, arms, whatever, were floating down that street." A nurse described the scene at Omagh hospital: "People were lying on the floor with limbs missing and there was blood all over the place. People were crying for help and looking for something to kill the pain." The trauma was so great that some emergency staff left their jobs after the incident.

Given that McKevitt accepts only 20 per cent of the responsibility for the Omagh bomb, this amounts to just 5.8 of the 29 deaths it caused. But if the unborn twins who also died are included in this macabre calculation, that brings his share up to 6.2 souls dispatched.

Omagh was what people like McKevitt call "a bad bomb", viewing it as a setback but not a reason for abandoning their traditional route to Irish freedom. That route is a simple one: it just means planting more and more bombs.

When people die they have the facility, as had so many others in the Troubles, to grant themselves absolution from blame. McKevitt and his people have further convinced themselves that the peace process is not just pointless but counter-productive. It only delays the day of eventual Irish freedom, when the plinth receives his statue, and perhaps one of his wife as well.

He thinks the legal apparatus, both north and south of the border, is immoral. And the great thing about that, to his mind, is that nothing done with the aim of overthrowing an immoral system is itself immoral. Thus the Real IRA's bombs are permissible, justifiable, honourable, moral. Even Omagh.

For most of his trial McKevitt sat impassively, hoping that Mr Rupert would fall apart under a pounding cross-examination. When this did not happen he dismissed his lawyers and denounced the whole thing as a show trial.

He had been hoping the court would exonerate him as he had so effortlessly exonerated himself, but this time they did not.

Mr Rupert now goes off to furtive obscurity, a life of looking over his shoulder. McKevitt goes to jail to grumble to himself about the injustice of it all and to work on his appeal. The Real IRA will meanwhile go on trying to blow things up.

And the victims of Omagh will get on with their lifelong task of coping with the hurt, the harm and the horror inflicted on them by the Real IRA and its corpse-littered patriot games.

Real IRA: The attacks

* 15 August 1998 Car bomb in Omagh: 29 dead, 300 injured

* 1 June 2000 Explosion under Hammersmith Bridge, London

* 20 June 2000 Explosive device at residence of Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, in Co Down

* 9 July 2000 Car bomb explodes outside police station in Co Tyrone

* 20 September 2000 Grenade attack on MI6 headquarters in south London

* 4 March 2001 Car bomb damages BBC Television Centre in London. One minor injury

* 14 April 2001 Bomb at postal sorting office in Hendon, north-west London

* 1 August 2001 20kg of explosives discovered at Belfast international airport

* 2 August 2001 Car bomb explodes on Ealing Broadway, west London

* 1 August 2002 Man dies in explosion at Territorial Army base near Londonderry

Rebecca Armstrong