A CORK MAN who told gardaí he had gone to Monaghan for “a drinking session” and did not know there was half-a-tonne of fertiliser in the van he was driving has been sentenced to four-and-a-half years imprisonment for IRA membership.
Martin McHale (53), with an address at Blackwater Grove, Togher, in Cork, had denied membership of an unlawful organisation, styling itself on the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Oglaigh na hEireann, otherwise the IRA on 2 November 2013.
The non-jury Special Criminal Court found him guilty of the offence in February.
Sentencing him to four-and-a-half years imprisonment on Thursday, Justice Isobel Kennedy said McHale travelled with another man to Monaghan with half-a-metric tonne of fertiliser in a van not owned by either of them.
Justice Kennedy, presiding alongside Judge Gerard Griffin and Judge Gerard Haughton, said the court was satisfied that McHale had full knowledge of the contents of the van and that he was a “trusted transporter” of the fertiliser.
She said the court considered belief evidence, his interviews with gardai, forensic evidence and activities at the relevant time.
She said McHale gave answers to gardaí the Special Criminal Court found “false and misleading” and he refused to name the owner of the van.
McHale had no relevant previous convictions, had settled family circumstances, limited education and was entitled to credit for the manner in which he approached the case, the judge said.
McHale had told gardaí during interviews that he had borrowed a friend’s van to go to Monaghan for “a drinking session” and was unaware of the bags of fertiliser in the rear.
Summarising the facts of the case, Detective Inspector James O’Leary, of Monaghan garda station, told prosecuting counsel Anne-Marie Lawlor BL that McHale had travelled to Monaghan from Cork where he lived.
McHale and another man were observed by Detective Garda Emmett Ryan in a van in the forecourt of a filling-station, “acting suspiciously”.
Detective Ryan, the court heard, was concerned about their presence in the van at that time in that area, which was being monitored for dissident activity.
He approached the men and asked them what they were doing. At first, McHale refused to answer. Then he said that they were out for a spin.
According to Ryan, the manner of McHale’s answers was “anxious and ill-at-ease”.
Gardai searched the van and in the back found 500 kg of agricultural fertiliser.
McHale was arrested and detained at Monaghan garda station, where he was questioned.
In its judgement, the court said that McHale’s answers were “false and misleading”, in particular those related to his knowledge of the fertiliser. McHale had told the detectives he said he was unaware of the fertiliser.
However, a glove had been found in the passenger side of the van, and forensic analysis had revealed traces of the fertiliser and McHales’s DNA.
McHale also refused to tell the gardaí who owned the van.
During the trial the court heard evidence from Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn, who said he believed McHale was a member of the IRA and that the information on which he had based his belief was “reliable and accurate”.
The court also heard that McHale has a number of previous convictions, dating from the early 1980s at the District Courts in Cork, for offences including burglary, stealing and assault.
His counsel Blaise O’Carroll SC handed into the court a number of testimonies, which, he said, spoke to the “gentle character and helpful nature of Mr McHale with his neighbours”.