Dissident jailed over weapons cache
A dissident republican who admitted possessing a large cache of guns and explosives has been sentenced to 10 years.
Gavin Coyle, 36, from Omagh, Co Tyrone, was arrested in 2011 when detectives investigating the murder of newly qualified policeman Ronan Kerr discovered the arms dump in a lock-up garage in the Tyrone town of Coalisland.
Items seized included semtex plastic explosive;four AK47 assault rifles, ammunition and magazines; a booster for an RPG rocket; three bomb timer units; a number of electronic incendiary devices; components of an improvised PRIG grenade; explosive powder and detonating cord.
Last year, Coyle, from Culmore Park, pleaded guilty to possession of explosives and firearms with intent to endanger life and membership of a proscribed organisation, namely the group that styles itself as the "new IRA".
Passing sentence at Belfast Crown Court, Judge Corinne Philpott said half of the 10-year term would be spent behind bars and the remainder on licence.
Coyle, dressed in a grey polo shirt and jeans, showed no emotion in the dock as the sentence was handed down.
Constable Kerr, 25, was killed in April 2011 when a booby trap bomb exploded under his car outside his home in Omagh.
No-one has been convicted in connection with the attack, which was claimed by members of the new IRA.
As a Catholic and Gaelic games enthusiast, Mr Kerr was apparently targeted as part of the dissident strategy to scare people from a nationalist background away from joining the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Detectives investigating their colleague's death have widened the probe to include 16 other crimes blamed on gangs belonging to the dissident group, with the discovery of the Coalisland arms dump considered a significant element of the inquiry.
It was uncovered within days of the police officer's murder.
Coyle was forensically linked to the weapons store by footprint analysis.
Coyle was given a six-year sentence for IRA membership, 10 years for possession of explosives and 10 for possession of firearms, with Judge Philpott ordering that the terms be served concurrently.
After hearing pleas from defence and prosecution lawyers, the judge said she had taken into account Coyle's admission of guilt in mitigation.
"He has now shown remorse by pleading guilty," she said.
Judge Philpott said she had given extra credit for the guilty plea as there were elements of the case that could have been contested during a trial.
She said she had also factored in that the charges related to "keeping or assisting in keeping" the weapons for others, and not for deployment by himself.
But she said an aggravating factor was the nature of the weapons haul that had been found.
"You have been involved in serious terrorist-type activity, you have admitted to membership of what you describe as the new IRA," she told Coyle.
"The ammunition and explosives and mortars and grenades that were found in this case makes this a serious find.
"It's very fortunate that police discovered these items before they could be put to use.
"Regarding the firearms, the AK47s are of some considerable vintage. It looks on the face of it that these weapons have been re-activated."
Coyle has already served around two years and eight months in custody.
After his licence expires, he will still have to notify police of his whereabouts for a further 10 years.
In the wake of Coyle's sentencing, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris insisted the investigation into the dissident republican group was far from over.
"The Mountjoy Road arms find (Coalisland) is one of the biggest in recent years," he said.
"On one very important level, it has saved lives and significantly disrupted a terrorist group.
"On another, more strategic, level, it forms part of the police investigation into a series of linked incidents which include Constable Kerr's murder in Omagh on 2 April 2011.
"Although we have yet to bring charges for Ronan's murder, this investigation, which is the largest in the PSNI's history, is far from over. Detectives in Serious Crime Branch have linked a total of 17 incidents to the same network of individuals and terrorist groupings. These include attempts to murder other police officers, a bomb attack, arms finds and armed robberies.
"We have made progress and we believe there is potential to bring other individuals before the courts. But we are not complacent. We recognise the considerable challenges remaining in this lengthy and complicated investigation.
"We will continue to pursue a comprehensive forensic strategy through all the strands of these linked incidents to ensure we maximise their investigative potential."