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The Unlikely Informer

5 minute read
CHRIS THORNTON / Belfast

He is no James Bond. Nor, say the few associates still willing to talk about David Rupert, does he fit any other espionage stereotype. Yet this beefy half-Mohawk, half-German truck driver from upstate New York is said to have done what years of work by British and Irish secret agents had never accomplished: breach the wary brutality of veteran Irish terrorists and get evidence that could put their top leader behind bars.

Six weeks ago, around the time 49-year-old Rupert and his wife suddenly vanished from their Indiana home into a witness protection program, Irish police in the border town of Dundalk arrested Mickey McKevitt, alleged leader of the Irish Republican Army splinter group known as the Real I.R.A. McKevitt, a 51-year-old shop owner partial to wearing baseball caps, is routinely arrested and questioned about the activities of the Real I.R.A. — and just as routinely released for lack of evidence. This time was different: he became the first person ever charged under Irish law with running a terrorist group.

And not just any group. The Real I.R.A. is seen as the most potent threat to peace in Northern Ireland, a hazard that is growing. Last week the U.S. State Department, in a global terrorism report that specifically named McKevitt, said the Real I.R.A.’s membership had doubled in the past year. Many of the new members have drifted away from the mainstream I.R.A., which is wedded to the peace process. But the men and women of the Real I.R.A. still believe bombs are the best way to force Britain to relinquish Northern Ireland. They have become savvI.R.A.out picking targets after their 1998 blast in the busy market town of Omagh, which killed 29 people and caused universal revulsion. Their recent blasts, including one at the bbc’s London broadcasting center, have created attention, not death.

That Irish authorities could claim to have penetrated this toughest of targets was surprising enough. But surprise turned to astonishment as Rupert’s role in the high-profile arrest came to light. Irish prosecutors recently revealed that the American, described in court as an agent of the FBI, will be the chief witness in their bid to imprison McKevitt for life. Secret informers have long featured in the shadows of the struggle between Britain and Irish republicans, but using another government’s informant on Irish soil is a new twist. “I can’t think of anything like this happening before,” said Tommy McKearney, an I.R.A. veteran whose essays on republican theory were read by Rupert.

On paper, he is an unlikely spy. Two meters tall and weighing 130 kg, Rupert stands out in a crowd. His former associates in the U.S. claim he is a tax evader who owes the government more than $700,000. He appears to have no Irish background, no obvious reason for devotion to the republican cause. Even his sister, Betty Dawley, said the whole saga seems more like something “out of a Jack Higgins novel.”

Rupert first surfaced in the web of Irish-American interest groups in 1997, when he joined the Irish Freedom Committee in Chicago after reportedly spending time in Ireland. Many of his former contacts in that organization now believe he was working for the FBI from the start. The new recruit was an enthusiastic member — designing the group’s website, traveling across the country for meetings — but he quickly steered the IFC’s support for republican prisoners away from a smaller dissident group toward the Real I.R.A., then emerging as a serious terrorist threat. He was soon traveling regularly to Ireland, where he met known Real I.R.A. members and reportedly impressed them with a ready supply of cash. By late 1999, according to e-mails supplied by his American associates, he claimed to represent the Real I.R.A. in the U.S.

The unmasking of his FBI links has left former friends mystified. They are asking themselves how he made himself plausible to tough, suspicious people on both sides of the Atlantic. Offers Joe O’Neill, a longtime republican dissident and former friend of Rupert’s: “Either he was very good or he was rumbled because of his tax situation. My own belief is that they got him over a barrel. If I’m wrong, he was very, very good.” McKevitt’s trial in Dublin later this year is expected to delve deeply into how the FBI turned a trucker into an ice-cool spy. Meanwhile, the Real I.R.A. has tried to show McKevitt’s arrest won’t stop them upsetting the countdown to sensitive Ulster elections. So far they’ve been frustrated: bombs have been abandoned short of their targets, fuses have failed and missions have gone awry, but without major arrests. All telltale signs of another informer in their midst.

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