by Q Radio News
Two men secretly recorded by MI5 'Security Services Agents' as a suspected drug dealer was assaulted and quizzed by alleged dissident republicans were handed prison sentences today (Tuesday) - but walked free from court due to time served on remand.
Judge Patricia Smyth told 52-year-old Daniel Joseph Anthony McClean, and 42-year-old Robert Warnock O'Neill that due to "evidential issues" in the case, their pleas were welcomed.
Both McClean from Lagmore Gardens in Dunmurray and O'Neill of Bingnian Drive, in west Belfast, admitted assaulting an unknown man and collecting information useful to terrorists on suspected drug dealers, while charges of IRA membership were 'left on the books'.
While O'Neill was handed a sentence of two years and eight months, McClean was sentenced to two years. Both sentences were divided equally between custody and licence, meaning that due to time served, both men were not returned to prison.
The whole incident was captured on an MI5 covert bugging of a house in Dunmurray's Aspen Walk on February 6th, 2014, and although the suspected dealer is heard being slapped once, it was accepted there was no evidence to suggest they administered it.
However, during the 41-minute recording, McClean was identified as playing an aggressive role, even threatening, "If you tell anybody, I will come through your front door," while O'Neill was heard complaining of dissidents getting a bad name, although, "we are not selling drugs."
In her sentencing today, Judge Smyth said there was no evidence that anyone was harmed as a consequence of the information collected, adding: "Much of this information was probably already known to these people."
Last week a prosecution lawyer told the court what occurred was "not simply being in possession of documents" but of gaining information, "collected in an aggressive manner." However, he added the only distinction between the two defendants was their criminal records.
McClean has a counterfeiting offence dating back 20 years, while O'Neill's record includes offences such as hijacking, possessing a prohibited weapon, possessing firearms, and wounding.
Eugene Grant QC, for McClean, said his client - a taxi driver - had "honoured" very stringent bail conditions for several years awaiting trial and his minor criminal record was "of some vintage" and "not relevant to this case."
O'Neill's barrister Greg Berry QC also spoke of the delay in bringing his case to court, and while he acknowledged O'Neill's record, told Judge Smyth "he had not re-offended in five years."
Originally the pair had gone trial last November along with two others, Dunmurray man Mark Gerard Heaney (52) of Lagmore Glen, and 62-year-old Kevin O'Neill from Coolnasilla Park South in Anderstown.
During the non-jury Diplock style trial, the court heard that a group of men were bugged by MI5 agents as they allegedly discussed dissident IRA tactics.
MI5 agents, screened from the court, told of planting and retrieving the bugs, but refused to elaborate on their workings, even to acknowledge they were 'covert devices', claiming it could 'damage national security' if more were said.
The trial came to an abrupt end earlier this month with McClean and O'Neill's guilty pleas, after which no further evidence was offered against their former co-accused, who were acquitted by direction of Judge Smyth of IRA membership, and separate charges relating to the possession of firearms, both with intent and under suspicious circumstances.
Speaking afterwards, Detective Inspector David Lowans from the PSNI’s Terrorism Investigation Unit, said: “Today’s successful prosecution and sentencing of Robert O’Neill and Daniel Mclean demonstrates our commitment to pursue anyone involved in terrorism and also anyone involved in any aspect of a paramilitary style attack.
“Detectives worked tirelessly to bring this case before the Courts.
"There are many obvious challenges in relation to bringing Counter Terrorism cases to court, such as fear of victims and witnesses to speak out or give evidence, however we will always work to overcome these.
"Today’s result is testimony to the fact that we can still prosecute people involved in terrorism even when the victim does not want to give evidence.
“Mr O’Neill and Mr Mclean were arrested as part of an operation during which evidence was gathered that they assaulted a man in an attempt to intimidate him into divulging the names and address of people dealing drugs in the area, as well as what types of drugs.
“They hit him and made a number of threats to ‘blow off his legs with a shotgun’ if he did not provide this information or if he told any lies.
"They also tell him they have a shotgun. At one point Mr McClean warns that he will ‘take his legs off tonight and that he wouldn’t think twice about putting him in a body bag or an open or a closed coffin’, while Mr O’Neill threatens that the victim is ‘a hair trigger from getting your legs amputated clean off’.”
DI Lowans added: “There is no place in modern society for this violence and threats of violence. Paramilitary style attacks don’t work, they are barbaric and despite claims from the groups responsible that they are protecting their communities, they are only ever about people cementing their own status and control over their communities.
“Nothing gives anyone the right to violate another person’s human rights. Those who are involved in paramilitary style attacks and terrorism do not represent the interests of any community nor contribute anything to it.
“We will continue in our efforts to disrupt terrorism and the activities of anyone involved in it so that our communities can continue to thrive, prosper and live in peace.”