Ex-IRA gun-runner and former Sinn Féin ard comhairle member, Gerry McGeough, goes on trial in Belfast tomorrow charged with IRA membership in 1975 and the attempted murder of a UDR man in 1981.
In a bizarre case, McGeough will become the first republican on trial for historical crimes in the North since the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Among the evidence due to be presented against him is Defenders, a 1998 novel he wrote about IRA, loyalist and British army killings in Co Tyrone, and an interview he gave to journalist Peter Taylor for the 1997 BBC Panorama programme Provos.
McGeough, who has been imprisoned in the US and Germany, was national director of Sinn Féin's 'No to Nice' campaign in the successful 2001 referendum. He has since left the party, claiming it has abandoned republican principles. He stood as an anti-PSNI candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the 2007 Assembly election and was dramatically arrested outside the count centre. He was charged with attempting to murder Sammy Brush in 1981 near Ballygawley, Co Tyrone.
McGeough says: "My prosecution has everything to do with political censorship and nothing to do with justice. We're meant to be in a new era. Either the Troubles are over or they're not.
"If they're not, let's not pick and choose, let's have everybody before the courts. Martin McGuinness has admitted IRA membership. Why am I being put on trial and he is not?
"The state has ample evidence of Sinn Fein leaders' involvement in killings – not attempted killings – and bombings. Many ex-RUC and UDR members were up to their necks in collusion and killing Catholics. Let them face the legal process too.
"Either a line should be drawn in the sand regarding all Troubles-related acts or else it shouldn't and everybody should be pursued." McGeough lives in Brantry, Co Tyrone, with his Spanish wife Maria and his four young children. If convicted, he will serve a maximum of two years under the terms of the Good Friday agreement: "My trial could cost up to a million pounds. When police don't have the resources to deal with drugs and general crime that seems a squandering of funds.
"I believe the real reason for my prosecution is that if convicted – even though it won't be a long sentence by the standards of the Troubles – when I'm released it will be on license. I'll then be subject to all sorts of restrictions and if I ever open my mouth again politically, they'll haul me back to jail.
"I also suspect it's a test case and if it works with me, many other republicans will be pursued for alleged historic crimes."
It's claimed McGeough joined the IRA's East Tyrone brigade in 1975, aged 17.
In 1978, he was arrested in England, questioned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and excluded from Britain. Ten years later, he was arrested when crossing the Dutch-German border with weapons in the car.
He was charged with attacks on the British army in the Rhine. He was held for four years – mainly in solitary confinement – in an underground bunker. During that time, the RUC travelled to Germany to interview him about the attempted murder of Brush but no application was made to extradite him to the North.
He was never convicted of any offence in Germany, but was then extradited to the US where he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for attempting to buy SAM missiles there 10 years earlier.
He was deported from the US to the Republic in 1996. "Although I was living openly in Ireland, no attempt was ever made to extradite me to the North over Sammy Brush. I wasn't hiding. I was a prominent Sinn Féin figure."
McGeough graduated from Trinity with a history degree and began a teaching career. In 2006, he launched an ultra-Catholic magazine, The Hibernian, dedicated to "faith, family and country".
He left Sinn Féin several years earlier but didn't become politically active again in the North until 2007 when he stood as an independent republican Assembly candidate.
"Although I didn't move permanently back to the North until 2006, I'd visited my family home in Tyrone many times before. I wasn't in hiding. I was stopped at police and British military checkpoints and was even called for jury service twice.
"When I moved home permanently, my next-door neighbour was an ex-RUC man who chatted to me regularly. My election nomination papers clearly stated my address.
"The police are saying they couldn't find me but I addressed many public meetings during the election campaign and took part in countless live BBC radio and TV debates, including one with Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew."
McGeough claims it was "no accident" he was arrested at the election count. "It was to send a very clear message to silence anyone politically challenging British rule in the North.
"Even at the height of the Troubles, I don't recall any republican candidate being arrested at the polls. If that happened in Zimbabwe, the British government and international community would be squealing from the roof-tops."
During an early bail hearing, a crown lawyer said McGeough was aligned to the Continuity IRA: "My lawyers showed that was absurd. I'm opposed to the continuation of armed struggle. The only organisation of which I'm a member is the Ancient Order of Hibernians. I'm anti-abstentionist and clearly stated I'd take my seat in Stormont if elected. Republican Sinn Féin, which is regarded as the Continuity IRA's political wing, actually stood a candidate against me."
McGeough has been placed under heavy state surveillance. Telephone calls to him are marked with heavy clicking on the line – indicating live monitoring. Emails he sends never arrive and there is regular interference with his mail. According to his bail conditions, he had to secure written permission from the PSNI every time he left the North which resulted in his Drogheda-based magazine closing.
Maria McGeough, his Spanish wife, says: "I don't know why this is happening to us. Because of the charges he is facing, my husband can't find work as a teacher. He had a heart attack last year. I believe he is going to jail. I look at his former friends in Sinn Féin walking around freely and living comfortable lives and I can't understand it."