A DISSIDENT thug returned to prison for breaching his early release licence had stockpiled handguns held back from IRA decommissioning.
Fears were growing that Ciaran 'Zack' Smyth planned to use the firearms in an attack on the Sinn Fein leadership - suspected threats that led to him being returned to jail last week.
Among his alleged targets were deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and the party's North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly.
Ex-Provisional IRA member Smyth would have been friends with Kelly in the past, however he was sidelined by mainstream republicans in recent years because of his increasingly erratic behaviour.
The 60-year-old part-time musician was known to have access to handguns held back from Provisional IRA decommissioning.
He used one of them in a terrifying armed robbery of an elderly businessman at his Ballynahinch home in 2013.
Along with criminal pal Eamonn O'Boyle (45), Smyth broke into their 82-year-old victim's home and threatened to cut off his son's fingers before fleeing with £5,000. They were later jailed for 16 years and 14 years respectively.
Smyth was freed from prison last autumn having served 50 per cent of his sentence, much of it on the dissident republican wing at Maghaberry Prison.
After his release he joined the New IRA's political wing Saoradh. Informed sources told Sunday Life that he also agreed to provide his handgun stash to the terror gang.
Since then, and with the backing of dissidents, Smyth has been throwing his weight around west Belfast, threatening Sinn Fein members and ex-Provisional IRA figures.
In February police told politicians Michelle O'Neill and Gerry Kelly that they were at risk of being attacked by the New IRA - a claim denied by the violent republican grouping.
This warning was delivered after Smyth was reported to have publicly boasted of wanting to shoot them both in bars around west Belfast.
Knowing that he had access to weaponry, his early release licence was suspended and he now faces spending the next six-and-a-half years behind bars - the duration of what should have been his probation term for his armed robbery conviction.
Republican sources say Smyth's return to prison has prevented certain bloodshed in Belfast.
"Zack thought he could intimidate Sinn Fein members because he had aligned himself with the New IRA," said one insider.
"He would be considered dangerous as he has access to guns, and his behaviour in recent times has been extremely unpredictable.
"That's a bad combination and it's best for everyone, Zack included, that he's off the scene."
The guns Smyth is understood to have stockpiled were among batches of clean weapons with no ballistic history smuggled from America into Northern Ireland by the Provos after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Although originally from the Short Strand area of east Belfast, at the time he was a leading IRA member in the Beechmount area in the west of the city.
Smyth, who was caged for nine years for IRA activity in the 1970s and took part in the blanket no-wash protests, has been linked to several high profile Provo attacks in the lower Falls area.
Twenty-four hours before Smyth's return to prison last week, ex-IRA prisoner turned Community Restorative Justice director Harry Maguire appealed for dissidents to "cease all activity".
He revealed community workers were continuing to be placed under threat from "anti-peace process armed republicans".
Dissident republicans are convinced this public statement is what forced government officials to act and recall Zack Smyth to prison.
The New IRA's political wing Saoradh condemned his treatment in an online statement, saying: "(We) demand the immediate release of Zack Smyth and an end to the ongoing use of internment by remand, via miscarriage of justice or through revocation of licence."