Robert O’Leary, who denied the charge and said “never in a million years” would he be involved with the IRA, wrote a letter to the court the day before his sentencing giving an undertaking “that upon release, [he would] not associate with persons or a person engaging in militant or violent Republicanism”. He also undertook not to come to the attention of gardaí.
Mr O’Leary (42) of Clancy Road, Finglas, Dublin 11, had pleaded not guilty to a single count of membership of an unlawful organisation, contrary to Section 21 of the Offences against the State Act 1939, as amended by section 48 of the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005.
Mr O’Leary was found guilty by the non-jury court of being a member of a group styling itself as the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Óglaigh na hÉireann, at a location within the State on August 20th, 2019.
Mr Mark Lynam BL, defending, said the contents of the letter were “completely unambiguous”, were a “major factor for his [O’Leary’s] situation” and were accepted by senior gardaí in the case, which was acknowledged by the prosecution.
Mr Justice Hunt, presiding, said he would consider the undertaking in the letter after reading out the sentence that was originally constructed before the court received it and then give it due consideration for adjusting the sentence.
Delivering judgment last month, Mr Justice Hunt said that a 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 Daly” [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 Mr 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 1st, 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 gardaí about the burning out of two cars nearby on June 1st. One of the two cars was a 2001 southern-registered Skoda Octavia.
At today’s sentencing, Mr Justice Hunt said that it was “only good fortune” that the PSNI officer was not killed or seriously injured.
Mr Justice Hunt said that the maximum sentence for membership of a proscribed organisation was eight years but that he was satisfied that the offence fell within the mid-range of the scale and identified a headline sentence of four-and-a-half years before mitigation.
Mr Justice Hunt said that there was no specific evidence during the trail that O’Leary knew the exact purpose of the car, or that he played any active part other that its acquisition.
The judge added that O’Leary had no incriminating paraphernalia on him, did not move with higher members of the IRA and that there was no evidence of firearms in the case.
However, Mr Justice Hunt said that it was “solely good fortune that no actual harm occurred” and said that the car was associated with a “very grave crime indeed”.
Mr Justice Hunt said that the sentence would have an onerous effect on Mr O’Leary’s partner, who would now have to look after two children and nine employees.
The judge also took into account that O’Leary had no previous relevant convictions, was of previous good character and that there were testimonial letters from family, employment, sporting and charitable circles.
Mr Justice Hunt read out the original sentence to be three years and six months’ imprisonment but then suspended the final six months for two years after taking into account O’Leary’s letter to the court.
The final sentence of three years’ imprisonment was then backdated to September 29th, 2020, when O’Leary was found guilty.