In a judgment which could have far reaching legal and policital ramifications, four County Tyrone men were cleared of membership of the 'Real IRA' after a judge ruled that the breakaway group is not a proscribed [illegal] organisation.

In his judgment, handed down today in Belfast Crown Court Mr Justice Girvan held "that the Real Irish Republican Army is not a proscribed organisation for the purposes of Section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000".

His decision rules out the possibility of any member of the RIRA being convicted solely of membership of the group.

Logically the ruling also prevents anyone being convicted of membership of the Continuity IRA, often associated with the breakaway Republican Sinn Fein, as this republican group is also not listed under Schedule 2 of the Terrorism Act.

While prosecutions for membership of the two organisations may now have been ruled out in the Six Cunties, such prosecutions and convictions will continue in the 26 Cunties after the Supreme Court in Dublin threw out a similar legal argument.

On Tuesday a former 'Real IRA' leader, Liam Campbell was jailed for eight years by the Special Criminal Court in Dublin after the court heard from gardai that he was a member of the RIRA.

Justice Girvan's acquittal of the Tyrone men followed objections by defence lawyer Martin O'Rourke to Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White being called to give similar evidence.

Justice Girvan argued that the law recognised that the 'Real IRA' was a different group from the IRA, and should be specifically proscribed in the schedule of illegal organisations under the act.

The judge said one way of "testing the point" was to consider the case of a person, who after the IRA ceasefire, decided to continue with violent republicanism and "links himself to the group known as the Real Irish Republican Army".

In such circumstances, argued Mr Justice Girvan, it "would be difficult to see how that person could be said to have become a member of the Irish Republican Army as an organisation".

The judge said that person may consider himself a member of the RIRA, may even consider the dissident group continuing the traditions of the IRA, "but the organisation to which he belongs is not the same organisation".

Justice Girvan said that, had he accepted the prosecution argument that the RIRA was an organisation operating under the name of the IRA, evidence would be required that the men were, in fact, members of the IRA.

Although acquitted of RIRA membership, the four Tyrone men, Donald Mullan, Sean Dillon, Kevin Murphy and Brendan O'Connor are still on trial accused of conspiracy to murder and possession of a rocket launcher in February 2002.

The men have argued that they were set up by a police informer who claimed to be planning a robbery.

The prosecution case is expected to be formally closed tomorrow, after which lawyers for the men will be arguing that for legal reasons their trial should be stopped and they acquitted of the remaining charges they face.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News