Londonderry men remanded in custody on terror mortar charges

Seamus McLaughlin. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Seamus McLaughlin. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

TWO Londonderry men were refused bail when they appeared in court this morning charged with possession of four mortars which the PSNI believes were ready for “imminent deployment” against a police station.

Gary McDaid, 37, of Glenowen Park and 35-year-old Seamus McLaughlin, of Eastway, are charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion on March 3. They are further charged with possession of four improvised mortars and a pipe bomb with intent to endanger life and possession of an item likely to be of use to terrorists, namely a Citizen Berlingo van.

The public gallery at Londonderry Magistrate’s Court was packed with supporters of the defendants who waved as they were brought into the dock. Other supporters gathered outside the packed courtoom.

Neither man spoke as the charges were put to them and, when asked if they understood the charges, nodded their heads.

A police witness, who said she could connect the men to the charges, told the court that four mortars were found in the van and the roof of the vehicle had been cut back to allow the mortars to be fired. However a cover had been taped across it so as to present a semblance of “normality”.

The detective constable said that at 20:15 GMT on Sunday 3 March, police stopped a white Citroen Berlingo van and a Honda motorcycle on the Letterkenny Road in Londonderry, at its junction with Lone Moor Road.

She said the driver of the van was Seamus McLaughlin and the driver of the motorcycle was Gary McDaid.

Both men were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000.

The court was told that police searched the van and found four mortars located in launch tubes, secured in a mounting and ready for imminent deployment.

The weapons contained substantial quantities of explosives.

She said officers also found a blast incendiary device in the front passenger foot well of the van, that police suspected was intended to be used to destroy forensic evidence following the deployment of the mortars. Two toggle switches marked A and B were attached to the timer in a plastic container and a vehicle battery. The driver’s seat was covered in a plastic, polythene sheet.

The detective constable said a large hole had been cut out of the roof of the van and it had been covered in tape, and that McLaughlin was wearing rubber gloves and forensic overshoes, and several layers of clothing, including high visibility trousers underneath his jeans.

McDaid had two motorcycle helmets when he was stopped and officers suspect he was travelling in convoy with the white van.

The detective constable said both men were subjected to an intensive interview strategy, and that McLaughlin had refused to speak. McDaid, however, told police he had been “running about” on an old motorcycle and that he was going to get petrol. But the DC said he had no money in his possession.

He also provided a partial account of how he obtained the motorbike and his whereabouts, but the court was told that police carried out inquiries regarding his movements and do not accept this to be a truthful account.

McDaid also claimed the second helmet was for his drug dealer whom he was planning to take to a stash.

Objecting to bail, the investigating officer said police believed the circumstances clearly indicate the defendants were active and prominent members of dissident republican groups. The court was told that police had observed the van slow down “to a crawling pace” and that the motorcyle had emerged from waste ground. The driving was erratic, said the DC, the lights were off for around 30 seconds, and the footstands were down.

The investigating officer said the van and motorcyle travelled in a convoy for a distance of around three miles over a five minute period. She also referred to the men having no previous records, saying it was a common tactic of dissident groups to recruit individuals with no records, and that police believed them to be “prominent and active members” of a dissident republican grouping which was bent on a “murderous and cowardly campaign” to murder police and prison officers.

Defence solicitors said neither defendant had any relevant record, the police had only circumstantial evidence and there did not appear to be any forensic evidence at this stage.

They said their clients would abide by any conditions set by the court and would appear for trial.

However District Judge Barney McElholm said: “There is no doubt that McLaughlin was driving the vehicle with the mortars in it. It is clear that his purpose was nefarious insofar as he had gloves on and forensic covers over his shoes. High-visibility trousers under his jeans is a particularly striking feature.

“That ties in the second individual – that and the helmet and police observations.

“There is a very, very strong circumstantial case that both were involved in something extremely serious.

“The fear of further offences is a very real one. People who are committed to these sorts of mindless, pointless terrorism which is going to achieve absolutely nothing are hell-bent on pursuing that activity. They cause needless suffering to families.

“People who are that way inclined are not likely to give up their activities.

“On those grounds bail is refused. Both are remanded in custody.”

He said there was a real fear of further offences and risk of flight, and remanded the two men in custody until March 28.

As the two men were led to police cars in the court grounds, a crowd cheered and applauded them through the locked gates. Scuffles then broke out outside the courthouse between supporters of the two men and police who appeared to be trying to get them to walk on the pavement rather than the road.