AN Ennis journalist has written the extraordinary true story of how American trucker David Rupert infiltrated the Real IRA and his evidence sent the terrorist group’s leader Michael McKevitt to jail for 20 years.
Sean O’Driscoll comes from the Tulla Road in the county town and is a past pupil of Rice College and St Flannan’s. He is now the night news editor for the Irish Daily Mail.
The book, The Accidental Spy, tells how David, a 6’7”, a 300lb frustrated trucking manager with three failed marriages and no connection to Ireland, began a relationship with a Noraid supporter, before becoming an FBI and then MI5 spy, while penetrating the army council of the Real IRA.
Much of the book is based on Sean’s extensive interviews with David but he also spoke to dissidents and some involved in the UK and US agencies that supported him.
Sean describes the story as the most extraordinary one he has come across in more than 20 years of journalism and he remembers when David Rupert first came to prominence. “I was in a supermarket and I picked up a copy of The Sunday Times and he was on the front page. I was wondering what the hell was going on; there was FBI, Real IRA and I was like what the hell is this? I remember their political wings webpage was taken down and everyone was really curious about this fella. There was a lot of speculation about him at the time.”
With his links to the British and American agencies revealed, David and his wife (who was not the Noraid supporter who introduced him to Republicanism) were in hiding in America, as the Irish and British media sought them.
David’s spying crippled dissident republicanism not long after the Omagh bombing and his evidence saw Michael McKevitt put behind bars, removing a key figurehead who was capable of driving terror for years to come.
While David’s impact was clearly laudable, the book certainly gives the sense that he drifted into the world of espionage, rather than getting involved for any real ideological reason. David pocketed millions for the work he did but that doesn’t explain it either, Sean feels. “A lot of people said he was in it for the money but the longer I knew him, the more I thought he was in it for the risk. He’s the kind of person who I think gets bored easily, which probably explains the four marriages too. He tried all sorts of things; off-shore gambling, he tried TV wrestling down in Florida but once he got into this world, he was hooked. It was the adrenaline rush he was looking for.”
David has a passion for history also and Sean feels he became very interested in the dissidents of Donegal after he arrived there. “He told me he has always been interested in people who live in the grey world, between legal and illegal and the Continuity IRA people above in Donegal fascinated him. They all have a very keen sense of history. They’re very different from Real IRA people. They’re very traditional; very into their history.”
McKevitt went from being quarter master general of the Provos to leader of the Real IRA but following David’s evidence, the terrorist found himself behind bars, which was a major blow to his organisation’s capacity to wage war.
David had also done plenty to cut off its ability to raise funds in America and his impact on the dissidents has been huge, according to Sean. “McKevitt kind of held it together. If there were any discipline problems, it was always his way or no way. When he left, there was a power vacuum and they began to fall apart. Also, Rupert had infiltrated their US fundraising wing. He got a few organisations banned in the US. Republican Sinn Féin is now banned in the US, as is the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. That hurt their funding.
“There was a car valet place in Kildare that they were sending weapons to, loads of things like that, which he was able to identify. His statement to the gardaí is 45 pages, not to mention the 2,300 emails between himself and MI5 and the FBI.”
Sean says he has no doubt that dissident elements wouldn’t hesitate if the opportunity to take out David ever came their but he feels it is unlikely it will ever happen.
Given that he lives in the States in an undisclosed location, under an assumed identity, getting David to agree to a book was a feat in itself. “I had seen that he was a friend of Michael Gallagher from the Omagh Victims Group and I had always been fascinated by the story. I wrote to him. At the time I was working for The London Times and I asked him for comment because the European Court of Justice had praised his evidence for being trustworthy. I asked him for comment and he gave me a comment, which surprised me.
“Then I sent him a few pages, showing if one was to write a book about his life how it would be. He seemed to like it and he got back to me. I had been working in the States and had a green card, so it was easy for me to go over there. Then I started writing it and there were hours and hours on Skype with him.
“Every day I’d write something and I’d have a thousand other questions and I’d have to go back to him that night.”
Not only did he speak with David, he also dealt with many of the dissidents, truly dangerous people. Sean knew the late Seamus McKenna, who drove the car bomb into Omagh, and clearly he has excellent contacts in that dark world.
However, even he was surprised by how helpful dissidents were to him in writing a book about a man who so significantly weakened their organisation. “One of them, in particular, is very senior and a good few times I chased him from court, literally chased him down the street. But eventually I met him in court. I said, ‘I’m writing this book about David Rupert. I won’t hassle you if you just talk to me’.
“He said, ‘give me your number and I’ll contact you’. I thought, ‘there’s no way he’s going to contact me, not after chasing him down the street’ but he did and we sat down for a good four hours.”
While David didn’t get into the spying world for any ideological reasons, he did came to see the evil of the Real IRA. “By the time the trial came around, I think he was pretty disgusted by Michael McKevitt. He had a chance to pull back from him and see the brutality he had unleashed on people.”
Now, although he lives in the shadows, Sean has no doubt he would do it all again, from the early visits to Ireland to documenting army council meetings. “I think he would definitely do it again, God knows he got paid enough for it. His wife, Maureen, says she wouldn’t do it again because it was too much of a strain on them. After they’d finished, when they had a chance to think about what they’d done, she found it very difficult to deal with.
“He’s very proud of it now, particularly in relation to the Omagh civil action. The fact that the judge praised his evidence, he seems very, very proud of that,”