David Rupert, 51, a former trucking boss from upstate New York, is the key witness at the trial of the alleged leader of the group.
Michael McKevitt, who is 53 and from Dundalk, Co. Louth, is the first person to appear before the three-judge, no-jury court on a charge of directing terrorism, an offense introduced in the wake of the 1998 Omagh bombing.
The so-called “godfather” charge can result in a life sentence on conviction.
McKevitt is also charged with illegal membership of the Real IRA, which opposes the peace process and split from the mainstream Provisional IRA at the time of the Good Friday agreement. McKevitt’s wife, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, a sister of hunger striker Bobby Sands, has been attending the trial every day.
Arrested in March 2001, McKevitt has pleaded not guilty to both charges.
The trial is expected to last about six weeks and Rupert is the main prosecution witness.
Rupert, who the prosecution says was paid $1.25 million over six years to infiltrate the Real IRA, will testify that he met McKevitt on more than 20 occasions. He agreed to infiltrate the Real IRA and report to the U.S. authorities after he decided it was “morally acceptable” to do so, he told the court.
His formal schooling ended when he was 16 and he had a range of jobs, including work as an insurance agent and as a logger, before he set up his trucking business.
Bad investments and an accident in Kentucky involving one of his trucks that resulted in the death of three children led to the collapse of the business.
The 6-foot-5 New Yorker said he made six visits to Ireland during the early 1990s with three different women. He had no interest in Ireland or Irish politics prior to his first visit in April 1992, he said, but found it was a “gorgeous country” that he “really loved.” It reminded him of where he grew up 40 years ago.
In August 1992, he said, he vacationed in Ireland with Linda Vaughan, a fundraiser for Noraid, whom he had met in Florida. Through her, he met a number of prominent republicans and was photographed by gardai.
He was subsequently approached by the FBI at his office in the U.S. and asked to provide information about republicans. The U.S. government would finance his trips to Ireland. Initially he dismissed the idea but eventually agreed to cooperate, he said. He rented a house in Bundoran, Co. Donegal, in the summer of 1994.
Married four times, Rupert said that even though he was infiltrating the Real IRA, he found Ireland relaxing.
Members of the families of the victims of the Omagh bombing are also attending the hearings.
The car bomb in the market town was the worst single atrocity in over 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland. It killed 29 people and injured hundreds of others.