Two Sligo men found in a car with a mortar round inside a "Spiderman" themed backpack have gone on trial at the Special Criminal Court accused of IRA membership.
Julian Flohr (37) with an address at Rusheen Ard, Caltragh and Damhan McFadden (29), of Kilmacowen, Ballysadare, both in County Sligo, are charged with membership of an unlawful organisation, styling itself the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Oglaigh na hEireann, otherwise the IRA, on August 14, 2016.
Mr Flohr remained seated when arraigned before the three-judge court today, Thursday, and made no reply when the registrar put the membership charge to him. Presiding judge Mr Justice Tony Hunt said the court takes silence as a not guilty plea and it would answer on Mr Flohr’s behalf.
Mr McFadden stood up when arraigned before the non-jury court and pleaded not guilty when the charge was put to him.
Opening the prosecution case today, Fiona Murphy SC told the court that Chief Superintendent Thomas Maguire will give evidence in the trial that he believes the accused men were members of the IRA on the date in question.
Ms Murphy said two gardai were patrolling the Dromahair area of Co Leitrim on the evening of August 14 when they came across the accused men travelling in a car and stopped it. A decision was made to search the two men under section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1977.
There will be evidence, the court heard, that Garda Eamonn McDonnell found a small “Spiderman” themed backpack behind the driver's seat in the car, containing a black package which appeared to have soil on it. The two men were cautioned and taken to a nearby garda station.
The barrister said the court would hear that when Gda McDonnell looked inside the backpack again he formed the suspicion that it could be an explosive device. However, Ms Murphy said it was later established that the device was a mortar round but there was no primary cartridge present in it.
Gardai formed a suspicion from this incident as well as other knowledge relating to the two men that they were members of the IRA and had been engaging in IRA activity, she indicated.
Another part of the State’s case will be interviews connected with the two men under Section 2 of the Offences Against the State Act. The section allows a court to draw inferences from a suspected person’s failure or refusal to answer questions regarding alleged IRA membership.
Counsel said the court will hear that searches were carried out in the homes of the accused men where items with Republican links were found.
Ms Murphy told the three judges that they will also hear some association evidence.
Giving evidence today, Gda Eamonn McDonnell told the court that he was attached to the Sligo/Leitrim Divisional Drugs Unit in August 2016.
The witness said he was a passenger in an unmarked patrol car which was on duty in the Dromahair area around 10.30pm on August 14. Gda Ciaran Staid was driving the car and they were heading towards Manorhamilton when they observed a black Saab car, said Gda McDonnell.
The witness testified that he was aware that Mr McFadden from Sligo town owned this car and he found it unusual that he would be in this area at the time.
The patrol car caught up with the black Saab, activated its blue lights but it took an “unusual amount of time” for Mr McFadden’s car to slow down.
Gda McDonnell testified that he got out of the patrol car and spoke to Mr Fadden who was in the driver’s seat and Mr Flohr who was in the passenger seat.
The witness said he could tell Mr McFadden was nervous and he became suspicious when he observed Mr Flohr put his mobile phone under his leg so he decided to search the car under section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Both men were searched but nothing was found on their person.
However, Gda McDonnell said he found a children’s “Spiderman” themed backpack behind the driver’s seat of the car and when he picked it up he noticed a “large amount of unexpected weight” in it.
“I could see black-wrapping on it. I thought it was a bar of cannabis or cocaine” he said, adding that he used his flash-lamp to observe the inside of the backpack before placing it in the back seat of the car.
Both men denied knowledge of the backpack, they were cautioned and conveyed to Manorhamilton Garda Station.
Gda McDonnell said he drove the black Saab car to Manorhamilton Garda Station where he later “touched” the package and realised it was not drugs. “I could see the shape of it, I got concerned and placed it back. I thought it may have been a bomb,” he said.
The witness said he phoned his superior officer and informed him of what he thought he had found, adding that he thought the army may need to be called. Gda McDonnell was told that the army would be organised to come to Manorhamilton Garda Station and the station would be evacuated.
“At this stage I realised this wasn’t a drugs run. I believed it was a run on the obligations of being in the IRA and bringing a device from one location to another,” said Gda O’Donnell.
The witness said he arrested Mr Flohr at 11.30pm under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act for possession of an explosive device and for being a member of an unlawful organisation. Both men were conveyed to Sligo Garda Station.
Patrick McGrath SC, defending Mr Flohr, asked Gda McDonnell why he did not look more closely at the black package when he first came across it on the side of the road. “I like to leave things in the location until I’m in a better position to examine it,” he replied.
Gda McDonnell agreed with Mark Mulholland QC, defending Mr McFadden, that there is no evidence that his client would have any involvement in the drugs trade.
The witness told Mr Mulholland that the first time the metal object was unravelled from its black duct tape was by the army. He agreed with the barrister that if he had lifted the conical shaped device initially at the side of the road he would have immediately realised it wasn’t drugs.
Gda Ciaran Staid testified that when he observed the backpack at the side of the road that night he also thought it was a quantity of drugs. He said he arrested Mr McFadden under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act for possession of an explosive device and for being a member of an unlawful organisation before he was brought to Sligo Garda Station.
The trial continues on Monday in front of Mr Justice Hunt, presiding, sitting with Judge Sinéad Ní Chúlacháin and Judge Cormac Dunne. It is expected to last three weeks.