'Sleeper' is linked to 10-ton cache of IRA explosives Accounts differ on whether man police shot was armed

September 26, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Sunday night, Tina Cuenco sold candy bars to one of her regular customers, Diarmuid O'Neill. Yesterday, at her corner convenience store, she was selling newspapers that contained pictures of the red-haired 27-year-old beneath the headline: "Face of the IRA Sleeper."

"I can't believe it," Cuenco said. "Nice boy. He was quiet. He had a sweet tooth and would come in for sweets and milk. IRA? I wouldn't know. I just can't believe it."

O'Neill's life as a suspected Irish Republican Army member and his violent death during a Monday morning police raid are the stuff of front-page headlines and controversy.

And there were reports yesterday that O'Neill was unarmed and shot at least six times by police as they conducted raids that yielded a record cache of IRA bombs.

The story hit just before Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, was scheduled to arrive in London today to publicize his autobiography and meet with a prominent left-wing Labor politician at the House of Commons, an engagement that has outraged most political leaders.

During Monday's dawn raids, O'Neill was shot at a bed and breakfast hostel in west London. Media reports said his younger brother, Shane, 23, was among five people arrested.

Initial reports of a gun battle gave way to news accounts that O'Neill was unarmed and shot at least six times.

But security sources insisted again Monday that O'Neill and the others had been resisting arrest. Sources also told Britain's Press Association that O'Neill had known IRA contacts and was linked to the bomb stash.

The case has been referred to an independent body that investigates complaints against police. A coroner also was investigating.

British Prime Minister John Major declined to comment on O'Neill but said the Northern Ireland peace process would have been "immensely damaged" if the 10 tons of explosives found by police had been turned into IRA bombs.

The operation shed light on terrorist "sleepers," young men who live on the British mainland, blend in with locals and await orders from IRA chiefs. Security sources said O'Neill was a sleeper, even though he had a criminal record allegedly linking him with the IRA.

Born in London but with strong family ties to Ireland, O'Neill attended Oratory Roman Catholic School and was described by the headmaster as being "well-behaved and never in trouble."

During his school years, he sold pro-IRA newspapers and was pictured holding up a paper honoring IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

According to media reports, after leaving school at 17, O'Neill worked in a bank, where he stole more than $45,000 that was allegedly transferred to an IRA-controlled account in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He also was said to have stolen a bank check worth nearly $60,000.

In June 1989, he was convicted on five fraud charges and jailed five months at a juvenile facility.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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