GERRY Adams and Martin McGuinness face a court interrogation over their past leadership of the IRA after being ordered to give evidence in the Omagh bomb compensation case.
The Sinn Fein president and his deputy are among five suspected members of the IRA ruling council who were last night subpoenaed by lawyers for families of some of the victims.
The other three men are the Sinn Fein MP Pat Doherty, and two other alleged IRA leaders, Brian Gillen and Brian Keenan.
All will have to attend a hearing at the High Court of Northern Ireland, scheduled for later this year, which will hear a 10 million compensation claim.
Legal papers served in Belfast claim Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness were leaders of the IRA at the time that Michael McKevitt quit to form the breakaway Real IRA group which bombed Omagh.
McKevitt, the IRA’s former quartermaster general, is one of five Real IRA suspects who are being sued for compensation by relatives of some of the 29 victims of the 1998 atrocity.
Mr Adams has always denied being a member of the Provisional IRA, but lawyers claim he was present at five key meetings of the group’s ruling army council during 1996 and 1997.
The Omagh legal team plans to ask Mr Adams and the other four witnesses to give evidence about McKevitt’s role in the IRA and the bitter row which led to his quitting over Sinn Fein’s involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process.
A spokesman for the Omagh Victims Legal Fund said: "No-one is saying these men were responsible for Omagh, but they were present at five key meetings which led to McKevitt resigning and forming the Real IRA. They are material witnesses who can give evidence about McKevitt’s role in that."
If Mr Adams and the other four witnesses ignore the letters arriving on their doorsteps this morning and fail to appear on the witness stand, they could face a contempt of court charge. They are entitled to appeal against the subpoenas.
McKevitt, 51, has been named in court papers as a Real IRA member along with Liam Campbell, 38, Colm Murphy, 51, Seamus McKenna, 49, and Seamus Daly, 33.
Lawyers for the Omagh families believe the Sinn Fein MPs and the other leading republicans will be able to give firm evidence that McKevitt was instrumental in the establishment of the Real IRA before the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
Mr McGuinness was the IRA’s number two in Londonderry at the time of the Bloody Sunday shootings in January 1972, and it is understood Keenan was the terror organisation’s link with General John de Chastelain, head of the international arms decommissioning body.
The legal team has listed five secret Provisional IRA meetings in the run-up to McKevitt’s resignation, about which it will question the five witnesses.
These include a general IRA convention in October 1996 and a joint meeting of the group’s army council and executive in July 1997.
Another meeting of the army council and executive on 27 August, 1997, and an extraordinary general army convention at Gweedore, Co Donegal, in October that year have also been highlighted.
Finally, it is claimed on 23 October, 1997 - ten months before Omagh - there was a meeting of the IRA’s executive at which McKevitt resigned.
Victor Barker, whose son James, 12, was among those killed in Omagh, claimed it was essential to cross-examine Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness about their alleged presence at the meetings. "We want to establish how the Real IRA came into existence and their evidence is vital," Mr Barker said.