Wednesday 21 February 2018

Weightlifter accused of IRA membership admits he was foolish to lie to gardai

Brian Kavanagh

A weightlifting enthusiast on trial for IRA membership has admitted to "foolishly" lying to gardai in interview to cover for his best friend.

Neil Smith (35), of Tubberfinn, Donore, Drogheda, Co Louth, has pleaded not guilty to membership of an unlawful organisation styling itself the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Oglaigh na hEireann, otherwise the IRA on August 8, 2010.

Taking to the stand on the fourth day of his Special Criminal Court trial, Mr Smith said that on the morning of his arrest he and his best friend, whom he was living with at the time, called to another man’s house in Dundalk to join in either weight training or boxing.

He told his defence counsel, Dominic McGinn SC, that powerlifting was the “number one thing” in his life and that he had represented Ireland internationally in the weightlifting sport.

Mr Smith told the court that the other man expressed an interest in going in to Dundalk and he consented to go with him, leaving his friend behind.

Asked by Mr McGinn if anything he had said to gardai during his questioning was untrue, Mr Smith said that he lied when he told detectives that he and his friend had travelled in to Dundalk together with the other man in a Ford Galaxy MPV.

Mr Smith said that his friend had in fact remained behind and then later phoned him and asked to be collected at a roundabout on the Castleblayney road outside of Dundalk.

The accused man said his friend told him that he had been travelling in another vehicle but realised there was a gun in the car and asked to be let out.

Mr Smith told Mr McGinn that he did not tell the truth about the matter as he decided to “foolishly” back his best friend of many years, who planned to say he had never been in the car with the gun.

He said he was “totally surprised” when gardai stopped the Ford Galaxy and that he was “certainly not” a member of the IRA and had no sympathies toward them.

The trial has already heard from surveillance gardai who gave evidence on the movements of five men travelling in two cars - a black BMW car and a beige Ford Galaxy MPV-on the morning of August 8.

When gardai stopped the BMW, they found a sawn-off shotgun loaded with two cartridges, a black balaclava and a Hallowe’en mask. Follow-up enquiries revealed that the car had been stolen and fitted with false number plates.

Mr Smith was a passenger in the Ford Galaxy, where gardai found a jacket containing a black hat with two holes cut in to it and two shotgun cartridges. It is the prosecution case that the two cars were driving in convoy.

The accused man told gardai in interview that he knew the two men in the BMW car and that he was also aware the driver of the Ford Galaxy and a passenger in the BMW were communicating by mobile phone.

The non-jury court heard that a garda search of a silver Volkswagen Bora car driven by the accused man on the morning of his arrest yielded two kilograms of icing sugar, which a ballistics expert testified can be used in home-made explosives.

Under cross-examination by counsel for the State, Una Ni Raifeartaigh SC, Mr Smith agreed that the items found in the BMW “had all the hallmarks of a planned operation”.

However, he said that he did not know what this plan was and that he had no knowledge his friend was to be collected by the two other men.

Mr Smith agreed that it was “a remarkable coincidence” that his friend had both gone with him to train in Dundalk and planned to be picked up by two other men on a pre-planned operation, but told the court that it was “no IRA operation”.

He told Ms Ni Raifeartaigh that he was not travelling in convoy with the BMW car but he was also not disputing evidence from surveillance gardai that the Ford Galaxy and BMW were travelling together, agreeing that it was possible the BMW travelled close behind and escaped his notice.

The trial continues on Monday before presiding judge Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan, when it is anticipated closing speeches from both sides will be heard.

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