IRA Bomb Plot: The London schoolboy who turned Republican terrorist

Michael Streeter
Wednesday 17 December 1997 00:02 GMT

Three members of an IRA bombing unit were jailed for a total of 62 years following the biggest security surveillance operation on mainland Britain. They may now be questioned by officials investigating the shooting of another member of the gang. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, looks at the London-born middle-class terrorist who was killed.

Diarmuid O'Neill, had an unusual profile for an IRA terrorist. He went to the London Oratory school - better known now as the school where Tony Blair's son Euan is a pupil - where he was remembered as cheerful, well-behaved and outgoing.

However, he became fascinated by Irish Republicanism as a teenager, selling newspapers in bars and he was said to have idolised the IRA activist Bobby Sands, who died while on hunger strike in May 1981.

Soon after leaving school London-born O'Neill, whose parents later moved back to Ireland, was serving nine months in a young offenders' institution for his part in a pounds 75,000 cash fraud from a Bank of Ireland branch in Shepherd's Bush, west London, where he worked.

O'Neill, who was 27 when he was shot by police in a hotel in Hammersmith, west London, was by that time a committed Republican and some of the cash was siphoned to the IRA.

On his release from jail he became a "sleeper" waiting to be activated by his IRA bosses.

His private life was involved in nationalist politics as well. O'Neill's girlfriend was Karmele Ereno, a sympathiser of the Basque separatist movement from Amorebieta, near Bilbao.

After his death, his Spanish friends paid tribute to "Ginger" as he was known in a Basque language newspaper sympathetic to the separatist movement ETA, promising: "We will never forget you."

The Police Complaints Authority will now ask his fellow terrorists if they want to assist its investigation into O'Neill's shooting on 23 September 1996. A file will then be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service and the coroner, pending an inquest.

Yesterday, after more than 20 hours of deliberation, an Old Bailey jury decided that the IRA active service unit, which included O'Neill, who was the group's quarter-master, had been plotting a major bomb attack on the capital. A fourth defendant was cleared.

The leader of the unit, Brian McHugh, claimed the team had been trying to preserve peace rather than destroy it.

He had been sent to London to decommission the weapons cache - which contained 6.3 tonnes of home-made explosives - as the Republican movement moved towards peace and wanted to join "historic" settlement talks in Northern Ireland, he said.

Sentencing the three men, the judge, Mr Justice Smedley, described this claim as "sheer hypocrisy" .

Senior Scotland Yard officers later heralded an "intelligence triumph", involving 50,000 hours of surveillance, which they say prevented a "devastating" attack.

Listening bugs were planted in the suspects' cars and rooms, their electronic pagers and telephone calls - even from public telephone boxes - were monitored, and film from mobile video recorders and surveillance cameras in train stations was taken.

Commander John Grieve, head of the Anti-Terrorist Branch, who co-ordinated the evidence gathering after the arrests, said the scale of Operation Tinnitus, involving the Metropolitan Police and MI5, who handled the audio surveillance, was the largest and longest of its kind on the mainland.

"It thwarted a major attack on London," said Mr Grieve, who added that the terrorists had enough material to plant four bombs similar in size to the one which devastated the centre of Manchester last year.

Mr Grieve said officers "regretted" O'Neill's death, but said he had been part of an active unit intent on causing destruction. The firearms unit deployed, including the man known only as "Kilo" who fired the bullets, had been briefed on the amount of explosives and guns the IRA unit possessed.

Those convicted yesterday were Patrick Kelly, 31, who was jailed for 20 years; McHugh, 31, who was given 25 years and James Murphy, 26, who was sentenced to 17 years. All had denied charges of conspiring to cause explosions between 1 January and 24 September last year, and of possessing explosives.

Michael Phillips, 22, a mechanical aircraft engineer with British Airways at Gatwick airport was cleared of the charges.

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