A Co Armagh was today jailed on charges arising out of the discovery of an armoured-piercing mortar device.
Luke O’Neill, 25 and of Silverwood Green in Lurgan, pleaded guilty to two counts of the attempted possession of explosives, namely an “improvised anti-armour explosive device”.
O’Neill was described as both a “courier” and a “vulnerable patsy manipulated by more sinister people”.
Though initial reports from the courts and a statement from the PSNI refer to a six year jail term, the Lord Chief Justice’s office has confirmed to the News Letter that the sentence will actually be three years in jail, and three on licence.
Belfast Crown Court heard the offences were committed on two dates between August and September 2016 when police mounted an undercover surveillance operation against a dissident republican ‘IRA’ group in the town.
A senior prosecution QC told Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland that undercover police observed O’Neill carrying a camouflage rucksack between two address in Lurgan.
The court heard that undercover police gained access to the second property in Woodland AVenue and found the rucksack secreted in the roofspace attic.
The prosecution lawyer said that on examination of the rucksack an undercover officer found what he described as an “improvised forward projectile explosive device” containing explosives and a detonator.
He concluded that the device would have been capable of firing once a battery was connected to the IED.
As part of the undercover operation, police fitted audio and video recording equipment in the house where the bomb was stored.
As a result of the officer’s findings, the court heard the device was taken away and replaced with an “inert surrogate device” which would not have been capable of detonation.
During a detailed forensic examination of the main device, he said results showed that it was capable of firing and designed to “penetrate armour”, adding: “It was the first time such a device was observed in Northern Ireland.”
Judge McFarland was told that video recordings later showed O’Neill removing the ‘surrogate’ device from the loft.
Police believed the device was to have been used in an attack on the Tullygally Road with the use of a 40ft command wire.
“The device could have been placed close to the road and the bomber could lie in wait in the shubbery at a safe distance to detonate the device”.
Surveillance officers observed O’Neill returning to the propetery and a covert camera recorded him replacing the device in the roofspace.
On a further occasion, the court heard O’Neill was recorded in the roofspace checking on the device in the rucksack.
O’Neill was arrested in September 2016 and the lawyer said that he was questioned on 23 occasions over five days but “remained silent throughout”.
“In a prepared statement he denied being a member of the ‘IRA’.
The prosecution accepted that O’Neill was guilty of the attempted possession of the explosive device.
“The device had been made inert and police had control of the main, sophisticated device which prevented any injuries or death.
“There was no evidence this defendant was involved in the construction of the device. He was reponsible for transporting the device from the house to the deployment area,” he added.
A defence QC said that at the time O’Neill was aged 22 and was a “vulnerable patsy who was maniuplated by more sinister people not before the court” because of his mental health and addiction issues.
He described O’Neill as a “courier and as a courier he was expected to do things... he did not know the nature of the device but anyone who couriers something like that is extremely foolish.”
The Belfast Recorder said that the security services had been aware of what was going on and mounted a covert surveillance operation in Lurgan at the time.
He told O’Neill: “You were responsible for moving the device from storage to an area where it could have been deployed and then removing it back to its storage.”
Judge McFarland said that among the aggravting factors in the case was that the main device “could have caused serious injury or death. Your role was a courier of the device.”