An "Arthur Daley" type used car dealer who supplied a vehicle for a dissident operation to place a bomb under a PSNI officer's jeep in Belfast has been found guilty of IRA membership.
Robert O'Leary (42) of Clancy Road, Finglas, Dublin 11 had denied membership of an unlawful organisation, styling itself as the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Oglaigh na hEireann, at a location within the State on August 20, 2019.
Presiding judge Mr Justice Tony Hunt said on Monday that the Skoda Octavia car had been used to survey the area around the PSNI officer's home in Belfast and stopped nearby for three minutes while the device was planted under his car.
The judge said the accused man had invented a purchaser for the Skoda car - a mysterious man - to break the link between him and the Octavia. The defendant had bought, moved on and repaired the car in a "purposeful way" and to suggest that this was some kind of "spontaneous long-shot" was not borne out by the CCTV in the case, he added.
O'Leary, who described himself as a "bit of an Arthur Daley" [the lead character from the 1980s UK TV series Minder] told detectives in his interviews that they were "barking up the wrong tree" and "never in a million years" would he source a car for use in an IRA operation.
In his opening address to the three-judge court last July, prosecution counsel Paul Greene SC said the charge related to the discovery of an "under-vehicle improvised explosive device" located beneath the car of a serving PSNI officer at Shandon Park Golf Club in east Belfast on June 1, 2019. After the bomb was discovered, the New IRA claimed responsibility by issuing a statement through a journalist that read: "The IRA claims responsibility for the recent under-car booby-trap. We are confident that the device would have exploded if not for the terrain it travelled over. We were unlucky this time but we only need to be lucky once."
Mr Greene said the PSNI had investigated the movements of the officer's car, a Cherokee jeep, around Belfast on the days previous to the discovery and contacted gardaI about the burning out of two cars nearby on June 1. One of the two cars was a 2001 southern-registered Skoda Octavia.
The barrister said evidence would be given that the Octavia had previously ended up in the yard of O'Leary, a used-car dealer, in May of 2019, and that he was alleged to have altered the log book with an "untruthful address". Mr Greene said that the accused would say that he sold the car to a "stocky man, in his 60s" for €700.
During the trial, Mr Greene read from the statement of the PSNI officer, known as Officer One, who said that he would usually check underneath his Cherokee jeep but that because of builders at a neighbouring property he could not do it discreetly in the two mornings before the discovery. Officer One said he drove to the golf course at 7.40am on June 1, played golf and had a coffee. When returning to his car he said he saw the car next to his reverse, clearing his view of his own vehicle, which allowed him to see the device underneath his car.
"With a clear view of the car, I saw what looked like a brown shoe-box under my jeep, in the shadow of the car and it appeared to be attached. It looked like a child's woodwork project. It looked crude, basic and I wondered if it was a wind-up," said Officer One.
Officer One realised it was a device and said he did not want to ring the PSNI for fear of setting it off by using his mobile.
The PSNI were instead contacted via a landline at the pro-shop. A PSNI ordnance officer arrived at the scene and discovered 65 grams of TNT attached to an aluminium detonator inside a wooden box under the jeep.
The device was made safe after a partial explosion occurred.
O'Leary told gardai in his interviews in August 2019 that they were "barking up the wrong tree" and "never in a million years" would he source a car for use in an IRA operation. He also told detectives that he did not believe in hurting people saying: "It's not what I do."
He said that he had bought the Skoda Octavia for €750 and had it for two or three days before he sold it. He explained that there were a lot of people around his area who wanted to buy cheap cars and they did not have the money to buy "upper end cars".
"I like to flip cars for as little as €200," he said, adding that his main business was panel beating and paint spraying.
He told gardai to believe what they wanted saying: "You're never so entirely wrong in your f****** career, there is no way I'd take part in that s***." He denied he was a member of the IRA saying: "I am not involved in this s***, never, never, never."
O'Leary said he had only bought and sold the car saying: "I f***** up, I sold a car without the log book."
He later added that selling cars without their log books happens all the time in the trade. He told detectives that what had transpired with the car was "utterly terrible and absolutely shocking" saying: "What type of person do you think I am, some kind of monster like."
He also said he was "totally innocent" of any wrongdoing saying: "I know nothing about any IRA operations, all I did was sell the car," he explained and denied that the IRA were his comrades.
Delivering judgment on Monday, Mr Justice Hunt, sitting with Judge Sarah Berkeley and Judge Dermot Dempsey, said that the court accepted the belief evidence of Chief Superintendent Anthony Howard and were satisfied that it was on the "strong rather than weak side".
Chief Supt Howard testified to the court in July that he believed the Dublin man was a member of the IRA at the time. He noted that the material he reviewed against O'Leary was "substantial" and he understood that the defendant had been tasked by the IRA "to carry out jobs".
Mr Justice Hunt said that CCTV footage allowed the court to be sure that the silver car doing a loop around the police officer's residence was the Skoda Octavia vehicle.
The judge said the court fully accepted that there may be a degree of informality concerning how transactions are conducted in the second-hand car market but whilst it is true in some cases, it is not true in every case.
"Car dealers will keep receipts to protect themselves in relation to any vehicle disputes and persons who take a lax attitude must expect scrutiny. Mr O'Leary seems to accept that he was such a person who dealt with second hand cars in a lax way," he added.
Mr Justice Hunt said the accused man had provided an "implausible and false narrative" to gardai and he had not acquired the Skoda Octavia on a "speculative or impulsive basis" but did so for a specific purpose and lost no time to repair the car.
"The apparent urgency of Mr O'Leary's conduct is consistent with a plan on his part for the car and the details of the transaction are incredibly vague," he said, adding that one might have expected some recollection of haggling about the price and his account made no sense at all.
The judge said that the court was satisfied that a purchaser for the Octavia did not exist and this person was invented by the accused in order to "break the link between him and the car".
The judge said there was a deliberate concoction by O'Leary to put distance between him and the Octavia car used in Belfast. The accused man had bought, moved on and repaired the car in a "purposeful way" and to suggest that this was some kind of "spontaneous long-shot" was not borne out by the CCTV in the case. There was no truth in some man appearing in his yard and buying the Octavia from him, he said.
In summary, Mr Justice Hunt said that the three-judge court had received both belief evidence as well as a "close temporal connection" between the accused and the car, which was used in serious IRA activity.
"The Octavia was in the hands of the IRA by the night of May 31, 2019 and played a very serious role in crime," explained the judge, adding that the prosecution had established the unbroken link between O'Leary and the car. The non-jury court convicted O'Leary on the single count of IRA membership.
The convicted man was remanded on continuing bail until October 5, when he will be sentenced.