Belfast Telegraph

Man who wrecked Narrow Water memorial to murdered soldiers has sentence cut by six months

Robert James McKeegan has had his sentence reduced.
Robert James McKeegan has had his sentence reduced.

A lorry driver who admitted wrecking a memorial to murdered soldiers had his 12 month sentence reduced to six months on Wednesday.

Jailing 44-year-old Robert McKeegan at Newry County Appeal Court, Judge Gordon Kerr QC said while he believed the original sentence was “excessive,” he added “however I consider that a custodial sentence, an immediate custodial sentence, is fully justified.”

In the Magistrates Court last February McKeegan, from Beech Drive, Bleary, Craigavon, pleaded guilty to causing criminal damage to a memorial belonging to the Royal British Legion intending to damage such property or being reckless as to whether such property would be damaged on October 4 last year.

Ordering McKeegan to be jailed for six months with a further six months to be spent on supervised licence, District Judge Peter Magill told him: “The fact of the matter is that this was a quite appalling offence of wanton destruction of a memorial to the dead.“

“Whether the dead were British soldiers or not matters little to this court - anyone who desecrates a memorial to the dead has stepped outside the bounds of any civilised society and the only penalty which is appropriate is a period of imprisonment.“

The prosecution reminded the court on Wednesday that at around 7.30am that morning, police received a report of criminal damage to a British Army memorial at Narrow Water, dedicated “to the memory of 18 British soldiers murdered by Irish republican terrorised during a bombing in 1979.”

Counsel for the PPS outlined that from CCTV, McKeegan could be seen getting out of his lorry while on his mobile phone and “kicking out at crosses and wreaths, damaging the memorial.”

“There were a number of incidents relating to the memorial and this was the seventh report of damage since 2015,” said the lawyer.

“As a result of extensive enquiries,” he told the court police were able to track McKeegan’s lorry and arrest him two weeks later but during five police interviews, “he made no comment or offered no explanation to officers,” adding that the value of the damage was around £200.

The memorial marks the 1979 IRA double bomb attack which killed 18 soldiers, the largest single loss of life suffered by the security forces.

At the original sentencing hearing two months ago, the prosecution had submitted the judge could infer hostility because it was a British army memorial and “given the history of this jurisdiction and the perceived perception of the British army representing a certain side of society and that this leaves no other reason for the criminal damage.”

In sentencing McKeegan at that stage, Judge Magill made it clear that “I’m not finding hostility” as a factor and during his plea in mitigation on Wednesday, defence counsel Kevin O’Hare said it was clear from the pre-sentence probation report that McKeegan “had absolutely no idea as to the background” or significance of the memorial.

Judge Kerr demanded however: “I’m meant to believe that just randomly, with no thought process whatsoever, he stopped at this monument and he decided to start kicking it for no reason whatsoever, I’m really meant to believe that.....is there anything in Northern Ireland that’s more significant than a poppy?”

Mr O’Hare contended that for McKeegan, “there’s a difference...between kicking a poppy wreath in ignorance, as probation suggests, and in the full knowledge of the historical atrocity that happened at that particular site.”

The lawyer conceded that while McKeegan had a criminal record, there had been no offences since 2006, submitting that a stable relationship and gaining his HGV licence along with working six days a week, had a “stabilising effect” on him, further submitting that going to jail would result in him losing that job.

Judge Kerr revealed however that in April 2016 at Dublin Circuit Court, McKeegan had been fined 2,000 Euros for various driving offences, mainly relating to his lorry tachograph.

When Mr O’Hare said McKeegan’s bosses continued to employ him, the judge said he was “astounded.”

Sentencing McKeegan to a six month jail sentence, Judge Kerr said that unlike the lower court, he had the benefit of the probation report and from that and defence submissions, his view was that “there was no particular animus” on McKeegan’s part. 

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