A Derry man has been handed down a ten year sentence after he was caught with a pipe bomb, guns and ammunition last year during an undercover police operation.
Nathan Hastings (21) of Stradowen Drive in Strathfoyle, was described in court as a “foot soldier’’ for dissident republicans who was helping to move the cache across the border for “safe keeping’.
Sentencing the father-of-one at Belfast Crown Court, Judge Piers Grant told Hastings he would spend five years in custody and a further five on supervised licence on his release.
The judge found that Hastings did not pose “a serious risk of harm to members of the public’’ on his eventual release.
But Judge Grant warned Hastings: “If you committed any further offences while on licence the court may take the view that you are a dangerous offender.”
Belfast Crown Court heard that would-be lawyer Hastings was caught in an “intelligence-led’’ police operation on April 12, 2013.
The former spokesman for the 32 County Sovereignty Movement in Derry had pleaded guilty to possession of the pipe bomb, pistols and assorted ammunition with intent to endanger life.
The prosecution lawyer said the guilty pleas were being “tendered’’ on the basis of ‘the second limb’ - that he did not intend using the weapons himself but had it for someone else.
The lawyer told Judge Piers Grant that at 9.30 am on the morning of April 12 last year police stopped a Citroen Zsara car and was found to be “untidy” but no items for terrorist purposes were found.
“At 8 pm police stopped the same Citroen vehicle again on Northlands Road and the accused was the driver. A second vehicle was also stopped and it had a single driver.”
Belfast Crown Court heard both vehicles were searched and police tasked Army Technical Officers to the scene after a “bag was found in the front passenge footwell of the Citroen car.”
“The defendant was arrested, cautioned and during interview made no reply to questions.
“The bag recovered from the car was examined and was found to contain firearms and ammunition,” said the prosecution lawyer.
“Inside the bag ATO recovered an item wrapped in a towel and consisted of an improvised explosive device, namely a pipe bomb device.”
The court was told that the contents of the bag were examined by forensic officers expert in explosives, firearms and ammunition.
“The forensic expert who examined the IED device found it consisted of the component parts of a pipe bomb, namely a metal flask, small amounts of propellant and a firework burning fuse.”
The lawyer said another expert examined the bag and found it contained a Walther X-esse .22 pistol and magazine, two modified 9 mm handguns, 31 shotgun cartridges, 138 rounds of ammunition and 95 black cartridges “which had been modified to contain steal ball bearings.”
The court was told all the weapons were test fired and were found to be in working order. Asked by Judge Grant if the modified weapons had the potential to kill someone, the prosecutor replied: “Yes.”
The lawyer added that there was clearly “logistical planning involved’’ in the operation but he said the Crown accepted that Hastings was not involved in this and had “been under the influence of older and more experienced individuals.”
The court was told that police do not believe the explosives and the weapons were for immediate use but were in the process of being “transported across the border for safe keeping for future use.”
Describing Hastings as a “foot soldier’’ in the operation, the lawyer said: “This was the hum drum, everyday activity which requires items to be moved.”
Defence barrister Gavan Duffy QC told Judge Grant that Hastings “was not acting under duress or coercion’ when he was caught with the terror cache.
“He accepts that he did this voluntarily.”
Mr Duffy QC added that shortly after Hastings was remanded in custody, he received notification from the Univeristy of Ulster’s Magee campus accepting him to do a law degree.
He said that while in custody he was studying English, Irish and until his arrest he had involved himself in politics and during one newspaper interview he said he “opposed the use of arms and bullets and didn’t want anyone to die.”
The defence QC said that Hastings wanted to pursue his studies in prison and academic activities on his release and also his political work.
Judge Grant remarked: “If he is now saying he has turned his back on violence, the proof of the pudding is the eating on that one.”
Mr Duffy added that Hastings was a father of a three-year-old son and his partner of five years and his sister were present in court “not to condone his actions but to show him support.”
Handing down a ten year sentence, Judge Grant said that although Hastings DNA had not been found on the weapons and explosives, it was clear, he added, that the defendant “had been trusted by other people of influence” to transport the cache cross the border into Derry.
Describing the offences as “serious” and saying they “presented a serious risk to the public”, the judged added that “many innocent people, including police officers”, had suffered as a result of dissident republican pipe bomb devices.