Armagh mayhem follows sentencing

Three days of serious disorder erupted in north county Armagh at the weekend after three members of the Continuity IRA received heavy sentences for possession of a homemade rocket launcher.

The sentences handed down by Judge Seamus Treacy in the juryless Diplock court -- 15 years each -- were longer than those the same judge handed to the sectarian killers of Catholic Michael McIlveen in Ballymena three months ago.

As the three were led to the cells, the packed public gallery in court 13 at the Laganside court complex erupted into cheers and applause, with a Tricolour being held aloft as men and women shouted “up the ‘Ra”.

The men had unusually pleaded guilty to concealing the device in a field, where they had been observed by a Crown force helicopter.

The trouble began almost immediately after sentencing, when van was hijacked, parked on the Dublin-Belfast railway line and set alight near Lurgan’s Kilwilkie estate.

Just over an hour later a lorry was set alight in nearby Craigavon. A few hours later a bus was hijacked and set alight in the Brownlow area of Lurgan.

Chaotic violence continued in Lurgan and Craigavon for three nightds despite “Operation Dissent” that was launched by the PSNI police amid fanfare on Friday.

The goal of the PSNI operation was reportedly to prevent attacks by republican armed groups ahead of the arrival of new police chief Matt Baggott, and involved extra PSNI patrols and roadblocks.

However, on Saturday, there were further disturbances in Lurgan, with the PSNI once again not intervening. Two vehicles were hijacked, the driver of the second reportedly instructed to drive to the Lurgan PSNI station after being told that a device had been strapped her lorry -- the incident was later declared a hoax.

About a dozen vehicles were hijacked over the three days, with most used to block the railway line in an evident attempt to draw the Crown forces into conflict.

There were also reports that a number of men in combat dress and holding rifles were sighted during the disorder.

Justice Treacy, who has established himself as the North’s most controversial legal figure, also made headlines earlier this summer when he fined UDA leader Andre Shoukri just one pound despite Shoukri’s decade-long reign as a north Belfast crime-lord.

A local Sinn Fein assembly member praised the PSNI for avoiding more serious conflict.

John O’Dowd said the PSNI had “carried out the operation well” by refusing to be lured into a confrontation.

Mr O’Dowd claimed that the armed groups had “lost control” of the individuals involved.

“It is a small group of people attempting to draw a large number of people out and they have singularly failed in their actions,” the Upper Bann assembly member said.

“Their objective was large-scale rioting and confrontation with the police and instead they have created mayhem and caused problems for their own community and commuters in the area.

“I think the PSNI have carried out the operation well this time by staying back and gathering information from a distance.

“Information is coming out and I think that has been the right tactic - this style of operation has helped to reduce tension.”

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© 2009 Irish Republican News