Michael McKevitt, the mastermind of the terrorist organisation behind the Omagh bomb outrage, faces a possible life sentence today at a court in the Irish Republic.
Just nine days short of the fifth anniversary of the massacre, McKevitt was found guilty of directing terrorism and membership of the Real IRA. Although he was convicted on charges not specifically related to the attack which killed 29 people in 1998, Omagh relatives present in the Dublin Special Criminal Court warmly welcomed the verdict.
The conviction of McKevitt, 53, from the border county of Louth in the Irish Republic, is regarded as a considerable setback for the Real IRA, although it has been able to maintain its sporadic campaign of violence while he has been in prison on remand.
McKevitt will be sentenced today. One of the charges carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The Omagh families also said that the conviction would help in their attempts to bring a civil action against McKevitt, a convicted terrorist Colm Murphy and three other alleged leading Real IRA figures, whom they are suing for damages amounting to £10m. One of them, Liam Campbell, was described during the McKevitt trial as second-in-command of the Real IRA.
The former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson, who has contributed £10,000 towards the £1m costs of bringing a civil case, said the British Government should now give "much-needed assistance" to the families in the civil action. "So far, amazingly, the only people who have been given any possibility of legal aid in relation to this civil action are Mr McKevitt and others who are facing action by the families," he told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme. "The families themselves have not yet been granted legal aid in continuing their legal action."
Victor Barker, whose son James, 12, died in the bombing, described the conviction as "a step forward in our fight for justice". He said McKevitt was "the man who has the blood of innocent people on his hands".
Laurence Rush, whose wife, Elizabeth, was killed, said: "I am delighted that he was convicted. It still leaves a wanting in myself. I am very, very, very happy. I applaud the judges. I hope we will continue this. It has been a really, really long five years and it still hasn't ended."
The judges ruled that the evidence of the FBI agent David Rupert stood up to cross-examination, describing him as a truthful witness whose credibility had not been impugned.
McKevitt remained in the cells beneath the court yesterday, refusing repeated requests from its three judges to attend the proceedings. He had a note delivered asking for leave to appeal against the verdict.
He is the first person to be prosecuted for directing terrorism, an offence created after the Omagh bombing.
McKevitt and Campbell, from south Armagh, have both been behind bars for several years, but even so their grouping, which is believed to comprise about 200 members, has continued to mount attacks.
Although McKevitt led the Real IRA at the time that Omagh was bombed in 1998, he is not thought to have been actively involved on the day of the attack. Police on both sides of the border are continuing to pursue the bombers.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary's investigation in the North was condemned as inept. After critical comments by the police ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, the inquiry was reviewed by a senior police officer from England. Mike Tonge, Deputy Chief Constable of Merseyside, said in April that the investigation, now being run by the RUC's successor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, had gained new momentum.
Only one man has been jailed in connection with the bombing, Colm Murphy, from south Armagh, who was sentenced to 14 years in January 2002 after being convicted in Dublin of conspiring to cause an explosion. He is appealing against conviction.
While no one has been charged with the Omagh murders, others directly involved in the bombing are believed to be behind bars in the Republic in connection with lesser offences.
A man arrested last month after the seizure of a bomb is one of the prime suspects in the Omagh inquiry. It is said that he drove the car containing the bomb into the town. Another man arrested at the same time was mentioned in court during Murphy's trial.
In Belfast yesterday police blamed republican dissidents for the attempted abduction of Billy Hutchinson, the Progressive Unionist politician. Mr Hutchinson was joggingwhen four men tried to bundle him into a car. He escaped.
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