Paul Williams: IRA spy ring watching Leinster House holds the key to Sinn Féin's outlook
Published 23/12/2015 | 00:00
Sinn Féin has previously demanded the abolition of the Special Criminal Court. The party has also got previous on criticising our judiciary.
It occurred when two Sinn Féin election workers were jailed for espionage activities - effectively spying on Government ministers, TDs and senators at Leinster House in a major IRA intelligence-gathering trawl.
At the time, 13 years ago, the uncovering of the spy ring was played down on all sides for fear it would disrupt the still infant peace process. The argument for not highlighting the IRA activity was not unlike the apologists this week for Slab Murphy's tax evasion - the appeasement of the IRA is more important.
However, the extent of the espionage ring did surprise the authorities here, who up to then had been convinced Sinn Féin and the IRA had gone down a purely political route.
"The penny dropped very soon. We realised the military structure was still very much in place and in fact there was a spy ring in operation monitoring the movements of our elected representatives," said a senior garda who was involved in the subsequent investigation.
"It was sinister in the extreme. We had spies monitoring our members of parliament, something that hadn't happened since the Civil War and is something you associated with totalitarian states such as East Germany and North Korea," said the now retired investigator.
After the trial in 2004, Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh also demanded the closure of the Special Criminal Court in a prelude to the calls this week by his leader Gerry Adams and deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald.
He objected to the three-judge court being used to try two of his Sinn Féin election workers who were convicted of IRA membership and each given four-year sentences.
Niall Bennett (aka Binead) and Keith Donohoe, who both held dual membership of Sinn Féin and the IRA, were involved in the spying operation targeting several politicians, including three former Ministers for Justice.
Detectives believed the espionage activity was part of an orchestrated campaign that included the two key members of Mr Ó Snodaigh's election team, designed to collate intelligence on high-profile TDs for an unknown purpose.
A document found by Special Branch detectives in a satchel during a search of the Crumlin home of Niall Bennett contained information on the movements of the TDs after they left Leinster House.
Bennett was a former secretary of a south Dublin Sinn Féin cumann.
The list included the late Jim Mitchell of Fine Gael, former PD leader Des O'Malley, the FF justice minister of the day John O'Donoghue and the Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy.
Also featured was the former Donegal Fianna Fáil minister Jim McDaid and Fine Gael's Brendan McGahon from Louth, an outspoken critic of Sinn Féin and the IRA.
The documents also contained details of the movements of the various politicians including the pubs and cafés they visited.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh's election workers were arrested in a follow-up operation after the capture of a five-member IRA gang by the anti-terrorist Special Detective Unit (SDU) in Bray on October 10, 2002.
The arrests took place when detectives swooped on a transit van and two cars after a member of the public saw them acting suspiciously.
It later emerged that the van had been used during Mr Ó Snodaigh's election campaign.
In the van, detectives found four men together with an array of suspicious items including a sledgehammer, pick-axe handles, eight bags of ties, walkie-talkie radios, a black balaclava, rubber gloves and a yellow fluorescent jacket with the word 'Garda' written on it.
In a Nissan Almera car which had been fitted with false number plates, officers found a blue flashing beacon, a Long Kesh baseball cap, a stun gun, a canister of CS gas and a roll of black tape.
Bennett's fingerprint was found on the tape and a second car connected with the incident belonged to Kenneth Donohoe's female partner.
Gardaí believed at the time that the IRA gang was preparing to carry out a violent armed robbery which was to be either a tiger kidnapping, an aggravated burglary or an ambush on a businessman delivering cash to a night safe.
Bennett and Donohoe were arrested a number of weeks later and charged with membership of the IRA.
During their eight-day trial before the Special Criminal Court, the three judges heard how the two Sinn Féin members had refused to answer any questions about the documents or the incident in Bray.
The three judges examined top secret Garda Special Branch files on Bennett and Donohoe after ruling that they were entitled to review the documentation which a Chief Superintendent had asserted was the basis for his opinion that the two Sinn Féin members were also members of the IRA.
The presiding judge, Mr Justice Diarmuid O'Donovan, said that the two men had not been convicted solely on the word of the senior garda but were convicted when that belief was taken collectively with their failure to answer material questions when interviewed by gardaí with regard to the spy documentation found at their homes and the incident in Bray.
The judge said that the conduct of the two Sinn Féin/IRA members when interviewed by gardaí was "insolent and provocative" and that they had no regard to the fact that the gardaí were merely doing their duty.
The officer in charge of the successful investigation, Detective Superintendent Diarmuid O'Sullivan, told the court that the politicians whose names had been found in Bennett's home had been going about "their normal and lawful activity and there was no suggestion of improper conduct" when they were being spied on by the Sinn Féin members.
Both Bennett and Donohoe were sentenced to four years each on the charges of membership of the IRA.
The convictions were deeply embarrassing for Sinn Féin and especially Mr Ó Snodaigh, who rushed to the defence of his associates.
He described the convictions as "unsafe" and called for the closure of the Special Criminal Court.