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Man found with half tonne of fertiliser in van told gardai he was on 'drinking session'

The case is being heard at the Special Criminal Court
The case is being heard at the Special Criminal Court

Lawyers for a Cork man, who told gardai he had gone to Monaghan for "a drinking session" and did not know there were 10 bags of nitrogen fertilizer in the van he was driving, have asked the Special Criminal Court to find him not guilty of IRA membership.

Martin McHale (53), with an address at Blackwater Grove, Togher, Cork, has pleaded not guilty to membership of an unlawful organisation, styling itself the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Oglaigh na hEireann, otherwise the IRA on November 2nd, 2013.

The prosecution in the non-jury Special Criminal Court trial of Mr McHale say that he was involved in "nefarious activities associated with membership of the IRA".

The three-judge court has heard that Mr McHale was seen in a blue Hiace van parked in the forecourt of Connolly's filling station in Monaghan town on the night in question.

Mr McHale told gardai during interviews that he had gone to Monaghan for "a drinking session" and did not know that there were 10 bags of fertilizer in the back of the van he was driving.

In her closing speech to the court today, prosecuting counsel, Anne-Marie Lawlor BL, asked whether it was reasonable that two men - Mr McHale and his companion - would leave Cork at 6.30pm in pursuit of a drink on the other side of the country.

Would they go in a strangers van "owned by who knows who" with a half a metric tonne of fertiliser in the back, Ms Lawlor asked.

Would they leave Cork at a time in the evening knowing that their thirst would not be quenched by midnight.

Ms Lawlor said the entire account given by Mr McHale to the gardai was false, misleading and deliberately so. The actual responses were a complete and abject failure to respond to material questions.

She said no booking had been made in the Four Seasons Hotel and Mr McHale had no clothes, no mobile phone or personal affects.

She said that a glove in the van, which required sustained contact according to a forensics expert, had the DNA of Mr McHale and a residue of fertiliser was found on the same gloves.

She highlighted his decision not to tell the gardai who owned the car nor who supposedly made it available to him. "'All I'm telling you is I'm not telling you'," she quoted Mr McHale from memos of garda interviews.

There were contradictions in his account and the "ludicrous suggestion" that he drove a diesel-powered van belonging to somebody else because diesel was cheaper than petrol used by his own car.

Ms Lawlor said there was evidence of his association with three individuals who had convictions recorded against them in the Special Criminal Court.

Furthermore, there was opinion evidence from Assistant Garda Commissioner Michael Finn who told the court that he believed Mr McHale was "100%" a member of the IRA.

Counsel for McHale, Blaise O'Carroll SC, ssaid his client complied with every request of An Garda Síochanna. He gave the gardai his correct name and address and produced his driving licence when asked.

He said Mr McHale made no objection to his detention nor any action taken by the members in charge such as the taking of swabs etc.

Mr O'Carroll said it was explained to Mr McHale that any failure or refusal to answer any questions asked by gardai during interviews was material to the charge of membership.

Apart from one question, as to whether he would name the owner of the van, Mr O'Carroll said his client engaged with the gardai. He gave reasons why he didn't want to name the owner of the van - he said he didn't want to get his friend in the trouble that he was experiencing.

Mr O'Carroll said the defence could not probe the Assistant Commissioner's opinion offence because of his claim of privilege.

That meant the defence could not explore whether his opinion was based on "poisonous information" fed to the gardai by someone who had a gripe against Mr McHale.

Nothing of an incriminating nature was found on McHale's person. But his companion had notes, a mobile phone with no data and was clearly the person controlling events, Mr O'Carroll said.

He said Mr McHale was "foot loose and fancy" for what he described as a "piss up".

In relation the bags of fertiliser, Mr O'Carroll said there was nothing to indicate anything untoward. From the driver's seat, one would see only timber and other bags.

He said the only DNA profile generated from the bags was that of an unknown male and the fact Mr McHale may have touched the gloves added nothing to the prosecution's case.

Mr O'Carroll said his client was engaged in an innocent project. There may have been an ulterior motive being carried out at the same time and Mr McHale may have been used by others unbeknownst to him.

Mr O'Carroll said the appropriate verdict to reach was a finding of not guilty.

Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy, presiding, alongside Judge Gerard Griffin and Judge Gerard Haughton said the court would give judgment on Wednesday next, February 22.