ONE of the most senior IRA figures in Northern Ireland known as ‘The Surgeon’ has been charged with membership of a proscribed organisation.
Sean Gerard Hughes will appear at Belfast Magistrates Court on Friday morning accused of being a member of the Provisional IRA.
Hughes was arrested at his home in Jonesborough, south Armagh on Wednesday by detectives from the PSNI’s Serious Crime Branch investigating the murder of Robert McCartney.
The 51-year-old is further charged with two counts of addressing a meeting to encourage support for a proscribed organisation, namely the Provisional IRA.
Last year, one-time IRA enforcer Padraic Wilson faced a court on offences in relation to the murder of Robert McCartney in 2005.
Belfast Magistrates Court heard last November that he met with the victim’s sisters in his role as a senior IRA man investigating the killing.
The 53-year-old appeared at Belfast Magistrates’ Court charged with IRA membership and addressing a meeting to encourage support for the IRA.
A detective told Belfast Magistrates’ Court that although Mr Wilson is not charged directly in connection with the murder of Mr McCartney, the charges relate to an internal investigation by the IRA following the murder.
He met Robert McCartney’s sisters in his capacity as a member of the IRA’s Army Council who was conducting the investigation.
Opposing his application for bail, a detective from the PSNI’s Serious Crime Branch claimed there was a risk of re-offending and interference with witnesses.
He revealed that police have received six statements from Mr McCartney’s sisters and partner.
“It’s alleged that Mr Wilson and another unidentified person with the family in a capacity as members of the IRA, as representatives of the Army Council of the IRA,” said the detective.
He added: “That role was in carrying out an internal investigation into the murder.
“It is alleged that there were at least two meetings held with members of the family, Mr Wilson and another unknown person.”
The detective said the McCartney sisters claimed to have only known Wilson by his first name at the time of the alleged meetings.
It was claimed the sisters met two people and only knew them as ‘Padraic’ and ‘Sean’, who is believed to Sean Hughes.
Internet research led to them recently discovering his identity, the court was told.
Defence lawyer Peter Madden stressed that his client does not stand accused in relation to the killing itself.
“The allegations are that Mr Wilson, far from being involved in the murder, was part of the investigation into that murder to try to find out who was involved in that murder,” he said.
Mr Madden also questioned the IRA membership charge being brought on the word of witnesses.
“There are certain proofs in relation to membership of an unlawful organisation and that’s not one of them,” he argued.
The solicitor described Wilson as a married father-of-two who works as a political manager.
But it was claimed by the detective that his alleged previous position means he still has significant influence within sections of the community.
District Judge Fiona Bagnall held that there was a risk of possible interference and refused bail.
Wilson was remanded in custody to appear again by video-link on November 30.
However, he was subsequently released on High Court bail.
Sinn Féin MLAs Gerry Kelly and Sue Ramsey were among party members in the public gallery during the court case.
Mr McCartney, 33, was stabbed to death outside Magennis’s bar in Belfast.
His murder had major repercussions for Sinn Féin which, at the time, was involved in delicate political negotiations aimed at securing its support for the police.
Within hours of Mr McCartney’s death, it was claimed that IRA members had been involved after a fight – a claim rejected by Sinn Féin.
Mr McCartney’s family accused republicans of covering up what happened, and threatening witnesses. His sisters accused Sinn Féin and the IRA of obstructing efforts to bring their brother’s killers to justice.
They mounted a high-profile campaign that took them from the streets of the working class nationalist Short Strand area of Belfast to the White House, and even to Sinn Féin’s ard fheis in Dublin.
The IRA expelled three members over the murder and Sinn Féin subsequently suspended seven of its members.
In 2008, Terence Davison, 51, was acquitted of Mr McCartney’s murder and two other men were cleared of charges connected to the killing.
Wilson once acted as an IRA go-between on arms decommissioning with General John de Chastelain.
Wilson, a convicted terrorist, jailed in the early 1990s for 24 years over a failed bomb attack, was not present on the January, 2005 night when Mr McCartney was stabbed and beaten to death outside a city centre bar.
However, detectives believe that Wilson was a senior figure in the IRA team set up to investigate the circumstances surrounding the savage murder outside Magennis’s pub close to the Markets district.
Wilson was taken from his west Belfast home on Wednesday to the PSNI’s serious crime suite in Antrim for questioning.
Last October, Wilson was one of our people named in court after a district judge lifted a banning order.
All four faced charges of membership of the IRA and other offences dating back more than a decade ago.
However, even though the banning order was lifted, not all the details of the charges in the case can be revealed.
What incensed Robert McCartney’s family was the fact that known Sinn Fein members, who had put their names forward as local election candidates, appeared to have seen nothing of the savage attack.
They included Cora Groogan and Deirdre Hargey, then aged 23 and another rising female in the party.
Mr McCartney’s family accused Sinn Fein of covering up the fact that city council candidate Hargey and Assembly hopeful Groogan were in the bar the night of bloody attack.
Like Ms Hargey, Ms Groogan said also did not witness anything in the bar and later made a full statement to her solicitor.
It prompted an appeal by Catherine McCartney for any other party members who were in the bar to disclose what they saw.
“Some of these people don’t have a problem with the police, they just pretend they do,” she added.
Another McCartney sister, Paula, said at the time that in her opinion the situation “stinks of a cover-up” as it took Ms Groogan six weeks to come forward and make a statement.
She said Ms Groogan had a duty to present any evidence she may have before a court.
“The fact that it has been six weeks and she is only putting that statement in now, with the full knowledge that a solicitor is an inadequate way of gathering knowledge,” she said.
“She may feel that what she saw was unimportant – I think that is for the police to decide.
“I believe it was her public duty – she should have gone straight to the police with this.”
Ms McCartney added that the fact Miss Groogan had waited so long to come forward had led the family to wonder about how many Sinn Fein or IRA members were in the bar on the night of the murder.
Ms Groogan later confirmed that she had been among 70 people in Magennis’s bar on the night in question.
Sinn Féin and the IRA have always denied the McCartney sisters’ claims that they were preventing witnesses from coming forward.
However, at one stage the IRA offered to “shoot” a number of people in connection with McCartney’s death.
Brendan Devine, a friend of McCartney, was slashed across his throat and from chest to navel and miraculously survived.
The IRA attackers were led by Jock Davison, the ‘Officer Commanding’ the IRA’s Northern Command and a one time high ranking Special Branch informant.
Davidson’s 55-year-old uncle, Terry Davison, was later acquitted at a trial in June 2008 of murdering Mr McCartney. He was also acquitted of affray.
It is alleged that Mr McCartney was murdered after he refused to apologise for making a rude gesture in the bar to Terry Davison’s wife.