- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

BELFAST — A 34-year-old electrician was arraigned yesterday in connection with the single bloodiest attack in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Sean Hoey was charged with possession of explosive devices used in 13 dissident Irish Republican Army attacks, including the Aug. 15, 1998, strike on the town of Omagh.

Authorities reached the breakthrough in their investigation of the Omagh incident as David Trimble, the Protestant politician central to the survival of Northern Ireland’s peace process, narrowly defeated a hard-line challenge within his divided Ulster Unionist Party.

Mr. Trimble, who has faced repeated Ulster Unionist revolts because of his support for the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, triumphed in a 443-359 vote of his party’s grass-roots council. The victory allowed him to proceed with plans to suspend or expel three senior critics, who oppose efforts to revive a joint Catholic-Protestant government.

Mr. Trimble, who had led the power-sharing government until its collapse last October, could have been ousted as party leader, had he lost the vote.

Mr. Hoey appeared handcuffed before the Craigavon Magistrates Court southwest of Belfast. He was arraigned on 15 charges, including membership in a breakaway faction of the outlawed IRA and conspiracy to bomb the predominantly Protestant town of Lisburn just months before the Omagh blast.

He nodded to acknowledge he understood the charges against him and was ordered held without bail until his next scheduled court appearance on Oct. 2.

A police detective testified that Mr. Hoey had pleaded not guilty when initially informed of the charges against him Friday in a police station, where he had been interrogated for three days.

Mr. Hoey became the second person to be charged in connection with the blast at Omagh, when police responding to confusing telephoned warnings accidentally evacuated civilians toward the 500-pound car bomb.

In the neighboring Republic of Ireland, IRA veteran Colm Murphy was convicted in January 2002 of supplying the mobile phones used by the bombers and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

The Omagh-related charge yesterday accused Mr. Hoey of possessing the bomb’s timer-power unit “on a date unknown” between March 12, 1997, and Aug. 16, 1998. Forensics experts who spent weeks combing through the Omagh rubble recovered remains of the unit, which triggered the blast.

The detective, who wasn’t identified by name in court, testified that part of the prosecution case would seek to link those remains to forensic evidence gleaned from a car bomb successfully defused by British army experts in Lisburn on April 30, 1998.

In the Irish Republic, meanwhile, police arrested a 20-year-old man yesterday after finding a dissident IRA weapons dump containing explosives and ammunition in a house in the western town of Sligo. Irish army experts inspected the explosives cache as police searched neighboring homes.

Police believe Mr. Hoey is an experienced IRA bomb maker who followed Michael McKevitt — the IRA’s former “quartermaster” responsible for acquiring and storing weapons — in forging a breakaway faction that opposes the IRA cease-fire of July 1997.

Northern Ireland police, assisted by British troops in helicopters, swooped on Mr. Hoey’s home Tuesday in the South Armagh borderland, the IRA’s primary venue for bomb making since the secretive organization began mounting attacks in the British territory in 1970.

Mr. Hoey had been arrested three times before on suspicion of involvement in the Omagh bombing and other dissident attacks, but was freed without charges.

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