Republic of Ireland and U.K. papers led Friday with news of the conviction of Michael McKevitt, the leader of a prominent Irish Republican Army splinter group at a trial in Dublin. The Special Criminal Court, a three-judge panel mainly dedicated to prosecuting terrorists, sentenced McKevitt to 20 years in prison for his role in leading the Real IRA, a "dissident republican" militant offshoot of the IRA opposed to peace negotiations. The Guardian noted that this was the first conviction in Ireland for the crime of directing terrorism. The Irish Examiner offered extensive coverage of McKevitt's efforts to unite members of radical IRA groups to further their goals through violence.
The news of his conviction was widely celebrated, since McKevitt is generally considered the mastermind behind the Omagh bombing of 1998, in which 29 people were killed. (See this "International Papers" column from August '98 for the early response to the bombing.) However, the Irish Independentreported, the judges were at pains to stress that McKevitt was not convicted for that crime. Instead, he was tried based on evidence collected by a paid informant, Dave Rupert, an American working for the FBI and MI5, who penetrated the Real IRA for the price of $1.5 million. Irish Times coverage of the trial noted that the star witness earned the faith of the judges despite what they called his "checquered business career."
Many papers focused on Rupert's dubious involvement with several partisan groups in Ireland as well as his spiraling cash demands for giving testimony. The Guardian called him "not your average James Bond," but like most other papers, it seemed to vouchsafe the former U.S. truck company boss. Rupert disappeared before the end of the trial under tight security and is currently rumored to be "sunning himself on a Pacific Island beach."
Reactions varied from hatred to cautious optimism for the peace process. The Glasgow Daily Record ran the story under the headline "YOU CAN ROT," and reminded readers that McKevitt was the "terror chief who masterminded the making of the Omagh bomb." London's Daily Mirror reported outrage from the families of victims of the attack, saying the sentence was too light. A Belfast Telegraph editorial lambasted authorities for not investigating other acts of terror, and reminded Tony Blair that there was no need to go to the "ends of the earth" to find terrorists when they were so easy to find at home. Several papers also pointed out the irony that McKevitt and another Real IRA member will receive government-funded legal aid, while families affected by the Omagh bombing must struggle to raise funds for their civil action against the group. Many papers mentioned that McKevitt and his legal team will try to appeal the rulings, and, according to the Irish Times, perhaps even take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Independent of London took the news as a sign of better things to come for the Irish peace process, calling the conviction a "confidence-building measure" assuring parties on both sides of the decreased likelihood of sectarian violence. Nevertheless, the trial's conclusion was a source of anxiety for many in Northern Ireland. The Irish Times quoted a security source on the North's preparations for any backlash from McKevitt's allies: "The threat level is significant and extremely worrying and everybody … is on full alert."