It was a landmark finding by the three judges. The offense was only introduced in the wake of the 1998 Omagh bombing atrocity. McKevitt is the first to be found guilty under the 5-year-old law.
By implication, the verdict also finds that McKevitt, who’s 53, was a gullible chief of staff of the breakaway IRA faction — presiding over an organization that appears to be riddled with informers and successfully spied on by wide-ranging security force surveillance.
The Real IRA, and the earlier breakaway dissident group the Continuity IRA, have suffered a series of blows in recent months.
Fundraising criminal activities like multi-million-euro cigarette smuggling and diesel washing operations have been raided and broken up, bombs intercepted and many of their leading figures are behind bars.
The key prosecution evidence of FBI and MI5 agent David Rupert, 51, the former trucking boss and bar owner who infiltrated the Real IRA in return for about $1.25 million, showed he had been accepted with remarkable ease by McKevitt.
The judges said they were “satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that Mr. Rupert was a truthful witness.”
“The court was satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that the evidence given by Mr. David Rupert constituted that Mr. McKevitt was directing terrorism and the evidence was open to no other interpretation,” according to presiding judge Richard Johnson.
McKevitt was facing a possible life sentence on the charge of directing terrorism between August 1999 and October 2000. As the charges didn’t cover the period of the Omagh bombing, it was not taken into account in the 20-year sentence.
For his second conviction, for being a member of an illegal organization, McKevitt received a 6-year sentence to run concurrently.
McKevitt has already served two and a half years on remand. He had denied both of the charges and claimed he was a victim of political show trial, dismissing his legal team and refusing to take part of the final stages of the trial.
But the judges found McKevitt played “a leading role in the organization, which he directed and induced others to join.”
The former Provisional IRA quartermaster, who is married to Bernadette Sands, sister of the late Bobby Sands, the republican icon and hunger strike who died in 1981, had quickly confided in Rupert after they first met in 1999.
That McKevitt so readily accepted Rupert as a sympathizer and made him his U.S. representative calls into question his judgment and reputation as a shrewd driving force behind the Real IRA.
Astonishingly, it wasn’t long before Rupert was reporting back to his paymasters about the Real IRA seeking cash and support from Iraq and Libya and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers.
Now a protected witness, Rupert learned about the highly secret so-called lily-whites — Real IRA activists that were sleepers and unknown to the security forces.
There was a sleeper agent in the U.S., a former French Legionnaire who could be brought home if the Real IRA chose to assassinate British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
There was a squad of lily-whites with computer and technical expertise who would carry out cyber-terrorism or attacks on British financial interests.
McKevitt also told Rupert the Omagh bomb that killed 29 and injured hundreds of others, was a 20:80 percent operation with the Continuity IRA.
The Real IRA constructed the bomb and the Continuity IRA were left to pick the target and deliver it. With the original parking space not available, it should have been driven out into the country and “let go.”
McKevitt confided in Rupert to a remarkable extent and provided him with highly sensitive information. He is now paying for his mistake.
After the sentencing, Justice Minister Michael McDowell accused hard-line republicans who are already members or were tempted to join the IRA dissidents of being “blinded by their bitter, twisted logic.”
They are a tiny minority, he said, “who pervert the ideals of our republic as a cover for a vicious campaign of terror, torture, intimidation, racketeering, extortion and low-grade, brutal criminality.
“Those who arrogate to themselves a spurious claim of superior right to rekindle the dying embers of sectarian violence and to fan the flames of a communal war among the Irish are as far removed from any concept of Irish republicanism as it is possible to be.”
McDowell’s strongly worded statement promised relentless action against those who attempted to bring Ireland “back down the wretched road of violence, poverty, suffering and injustice — the road that led, and would inevitably lead back, to Omagh.”