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Demands for sentencing review after 'high risk' dissidents are released

Concern as training camp terror gang back on the streets after just two years in jail

By Deborah McAleese

Published 16/08/2016

Dissident republican Terence Aiden Coney
Dissident republican Terence Aiden Coney
Dissident republican Gavin Coney
Dissident republican Sean Kelly
Sharon Rafferty (in the middle with hand over her face)

Serious concern over the release of three "high risk" dissident republican terrorists has led to demands for new terror sentencing laws.

Members of a deadly dissident gang are back on the streets less than two years after they were jailed over a terrorist training camp in Co Tyrone.

Both police and the security services are concerned at the release from jail of Omagh brothers, Gavin Joseph Coney and Terence Aiden Coney, and Pomeroy woman Sharon Rafferty.

Rafferty, who currently goes by the name Sharon Girvan, was recently pictured at the front of an anti-internment march in Belfast city centre alongside supporters of terror suspect, Carl Reilly.

A fourth member of the gang, Sean Kelly from Toomebridge, who was on early licence under the Good Friday Agreement at the time of his arrest, has not yet been released. All four are deemed "high risk", a police source said.

The DUP's Nelson McCausland warned that the current sentencing regime "is simply too lenient", and said that serious terrorist crimes "require longer sentences than are currently being handed out".

The gang was caught plotting and training to murder police officers and a judge, following a major MI5 sting operation - one of the security service's biggest successes in recent years.

They were arrested at a terrorist training camp in Formil Forest, Omagh, in 2012 after a year-long covert security operation.

The camp was a makeshift firing range. Approximately 200 rounds had been fired at balloons and tins.

The four were secretly monitored for several months before enough evidence was gathered to bug their conversations.

Secret recordings between Kelly and Rafferty heard them discuss a potential attack on police officers near a car park in Toomebridge, targeting Catholic police officers and the publicity surrounding killing people. Kelly was also recorded talking about the name and address of a prison governor and how to handle an AK47. Conversations were recorded over a six-month period from 2011 to April 2012.

The four were jailed in September 2014 after they admitted a series of terrorist charges.

Kelly was jailed for five years, with five on licence; Rafferty for four years and four on licence, while the Coney brothers were jailed for five years and nine months.

Due to time on remand from their initial arrest, the Coney brothers and Rafferty were released less than two years after sentence was passed.

"This case highlights one of the major issues around removing paramilitarism from our society, and that is the appropriateness of the sentences being handed out in the courts," said Nelson McCausland (left). The Policing Board member said that considerable resources, involving MI5 and the PSNI, were devoted to the uncovering of this terrorist operation and to the arrest and conviction of these republican terrorists.

"They were convicted of very serious offences and the intention was to kill police officers. It is therefore wrong that they should be out on the streets just over a year after they were sentenced," he said.

Mr McCausland added: "This group of convicted terrorists spent time on remand before they were sentenced, but the current sentencing regime is simply too lenient. Serious terrorist crimes require longer sentences than are currently being handed out.

"A stronger sentencing regime would send out a strong message to the terrorists and to society, and would have a greater impact on the operation of these organisations. The sentences should more adequately reflect the seriousness of the crimes and the resources that are required to put the terrorists behind bars."

The group is still viewed as "high risk", a police source said.

And a security source recently told the Belfast Telegraph that these are "dangerous individuals".

"The convictions speak for themselves," a source said.

"It's not as simple as people serving their time and then it's just all forgotten about. It comes as no surprise when we see people coming out the other side (of jail) and re-engaging with violent extremism," he added.

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