Sunday Life can reveal that John Connolly, the 'military commander' of a violent Continuity IRA (CIRA) unit in Co Fermanagh, is suspected of scattering bullets held in an old arms dump around the scene of last week's border security alert.
We can also reveal that despite serving a 14-year jail term for possessing a 220lb mortar, Connolly was allowed a gun licence after being freed from jail.
The 45-year-old, who is from Fermanagh but now lives in Cavan, was often seen walking the fields with a shotgun despite being on terror watchlists on both sides of the border.
It is believed police chiefs took action to stop the licence being renewed after intelligence that he had become a leading figure in the CIRA in recent years.
Police believe Connolly is behind the bogus CIRA claims that it shot at a helicopter near Newtownbutler last week.
The statement was branded "lies" after bullets from a high-powered Russian rifle found at the scene were found not to have been fired.
ON ALERT: A bullet found nearby and (left) police near the scene of the apparent attack
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, a decorated military veteran who spent 28 years in the British Army, confirmed bullets pictured at the scene of the alleged helicopter attack had not been fired.
After being shown images of one of the bullets, he said: "That's an unspent round. It was never in a weapon. It still has the warhead and there are no markings on it. It was never ejected from a weapon. It was planted. It's lies to say that round was fired."
The UUP justice spokesperson also said he was shocked to learn Connolly was ever allowed a licence to carry legal guns despite having a terrorist conviction.
He said: "I'm stunned. How on earth could a convicted dissident republican bomber be granted a firearms certificate?
"The PSNI and Garda need to be questioned about their firearms policy and to whom certificates are being issued. They need to get a grip."
His comments about the supposed helicopter attack being a hoax back up what PSNI sources told Sunday Life: that it never took place and the CIRA's claims are nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Police have admitted that a helicopter was in the area at the time of the alleged attack on January 14, saying it was piloted by a civilian who did not realise he was in danger.
The terror gang claims to have used a Dragunov rifle to fire nine shots at the aircraft during a security alert on the Wattlebridge Road. This was after attempts were made to lure police into the area with a hoax bomb phone call.
John Connolly served a lengthy prison sentence after being caught 21 years ago with a 220lb Real IRA mortar en route to blowing up a police station on Remembrance Sunday weekend.
Following his release, the 45-year-old publicly renounced violence, but in recent times has found a new home with CIRA.
Veteran republican John Joe 'JJ' McCusker, the gang's leader in the area, is believed to have recruited Connolly.
The 66-year-old was recently questioned by the PSNI about a 2019 bomb attack on police near the Fermanagh-Cavan border.
He was subsequently freed without charge.
While Connolly denies any link to either the CIRA or the helicopter gun attack, he has been gloating about the incident on social media.
Writing on Facebook, he accused "the crown forces" of telling lies about the shooting, saying: "Egg in the faces of the crown forces caught telling lies, not once, but twice lol."
In another video of a helicopter flying high in the sky near the border, he says: "Flying very high today for some reason."
The hoax bomb alert on the Wattlebridge Road is the second time in 18 months that the CIRA has attempted to lure police into the area.
In August 2019, cops searched the same isolated roadside looking for a bogus device when a bomb exploded nearby.
Officers escaped serious injury, but fears of a repeat ambush meant the PSNI was reluctant to send vehicle patrols back during last week's alert.
The CIRA claims that a helicopter was dispatched instead - an allegation that police chiefs deny - and that its men opened fire on the aircraft, forcing a retreat.
The PSNI yesterday remained at the scene, which was cordoned off from the public.
While John Connolly denies being involved in the CIRA, he plays a leading and very public role in its political wing Republican Sinn Fein (RSF).
He was at the forefront of a recent campaign backing dissident republican Liam Campbell, who is facing extradition to Lithuania on firearms charges.
This is not the only controversial crusade to which Connolly has aligned himself - he has also been highly critical of the directors of the former Quinn Industrial Holdings (QIH), who took over the business from billionaire Sean Quinn. In 2019, one of these directors, Kevin Lunney, was kidnapped from his Fermanagh home and tortured - an attack condemned by Mr Quinn.
A masked man, reported to be Connolly, was pictured afterwards, threatening: "This is your last warning to resign your positions in QIH. Obviously, you have not learned the lesson after what happened to Kevin.
"The Quinn family that have employed hundreds of people in work were stabbed in the back. We have the capabilities and manpower to see this through until the end. A 'permanent solution' it will be."
In a 2011 interview with Sunday Life, Connolly insisted he had abandoned violence, saying: "I am not involved in militant republicanism in any way. When I got out of jail in 2007, I broke all contact with the IRA. If I'm guilty of anything, it is of being a proud, unrepentant Irish republican."