Will the Real IRA Please Stand Up?

With the current trouble in Belfast and a growing new paramilitary group called "The Real IRA", we look at the possible new threats to the 1994 ceasefire...
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With the current trouble in Belfast and a growing new paramilitary group called "The Real IRA", we look at the possible new threats to the 1994 ceasefire...


The first issue on any IRA agenda, according to the playwright Brendan Behan, will always be 'the split'.
Behan was in a better position than most to comment on the shortcomings of that organisation; he'd served three years in a Borstal for his part in a botched IRA bomb plot to sabotage Liverpool docks in 1939.

The 'split' remains a defining feature in the ongoing evolution of the Irish Republican movement. In fact, even the briefest of inspections throws up a whole raft of IRAs and other paramilitary pretenders that makes the pre-ceasefire days of 1994 look positively straightforward.

From the Irish Republican Liberation Army to the Óglaigh na hÉireanns (both 'real and 'continuity'), the 21st century has seen a bewildering proliferation of splinter groups claiming the mantle of 'legitimate armed struggle' against the 'forces of British Imperialism', to adopt the parlance.

But even before the Real IRA, there were splinters from the Provisional IRA (itself a splinter from the Official IRA founded in 1969).

Back in 1986, Continuity IRA was formed after a more conservative cadre of Army Council leadership balked at the prospect of Sinn Féin candidates taking up seats if elected to the Dáil (the Irish Republic's parliament). Abstentionism had been an unassailable article of faith for Republicans since the 1918 general election and gave the movement its first major crisis since the founding of the Irish National Liberation Army in 1974.


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The so-called Real IRA was formed in 1997 by former Provisional IRA Quartermaster General Michael McKevitt and his partner Bernadette Sands-McKevitt. They had both been members of the Provisional Army Council and had resigned in protest at the direction being taken by the Provisional leadership in pursuing the Peace Process (which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April the following year).

Bernadette Sands-McKevitt was the sister of hunger-striker Bobby Sands and she was moved at the time to declare: "Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state".

The Real IRA will forever be linked in the public consciousness with the horrific Omagh Bombing of 15 August 1998 which killed 29 people; giving it the dubious distinction of being the biggest loss of life from a single bomb during the Troubles (beaten only as the bloodiest day of the conflict by the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 1974 in which 33 people were killed in a series of car bombs claimed by the UVF).

Since Omagh, the Real IRA has been involved in dozens of attacks on police and British army personnel in both Ireland and Britain, most notably with high profile strikes like the bombing of the BBC in 2001 and the rocket attack on MI6 in London the previous year.

Both the Real and Continuity variants of the IRA have fractured on numerous occasions since their respective inceptions. In 2006, the Irish Republican Liberation Army split from Continuity IRA and each of the dissident IRAs now apparently has its own 'Óglaigh na hÉireann': with 'Continuity ONH' formed in 2006 and Real IRA/ONH formed in 2009. 'Óglaigh na hÉireann' actually translates as Irish Volunteers; confusingly, this was the name of an Irish paramilitary organisation founded in 1913 in response to the founding of the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (who showed their loyalty to Britain by smuggling German guns into Larne).

During the Black and Tan War (Irish War of Independence 1919-21) Óglaigh na hÉireann was how the IRA was known in Irish. And just to make things even less clear, Óglaigh na hÉireann is now the name of two dissident Republican splinter groups and finally, it's also the Irish name for the Irish Defence Forces (the official army of the Irish Republic).

Even though the membership of each of these splinter groups can be counted in dozens rather than hundreds, the threat posed by these organisations is still substantial. The media and governments on both sides of the Irish border are understandably keen to play down the extent of dissident activity, portraying it more as a manageable nuisance than a concerted upsurge in violence.

But even a brief glance at the number of 'operations' being carried out by these disparate groups suggests that if they were to coalesce under a more centralised leadership, they could prove to be a lot more than a mere irritant. There was some evidence this year that this was already starting to happen.

In July 2012, the Guardian's Irish correspondent Henry McDonald, reported that three of the four main dissident republican terror groups in Northern Ireland were to merge and reclaim the banner of the IRA.

Parenthetically, one has to wonder however about just how disparate these groups really are. Just as in the past when the UVF didn't want to claim a killing they used the sobriquet 'The Red Hand Commando' or if in the case of the UDA, it was the Ulster Freedom Fighters, so too it could be with the dissidents. Their politics are after all very similar (if not identical) and one things that is clear is that they benefit from the confusion caused by such a bewildering proliferation of names and organisations.


Either way, it would appear likely that the dissidents will continue to present a low-intensity threat to the security and stability of Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future; or more accurately, a threat that is low-intensity relative to the dark days of The Troubles in the '70s and '80s.

The Real IRA's activity in Britain has been mercifully scarce over the past decade. The last major attack in Britain took place in Ealing in West London when they detonated a car bomb containing 45kg of explosives, injuring seven people. While there hasn't been a Real IRA bomb attack in twelve years, the possibility of another England campaign can never be ruled out; particularly if they were to become emboldened by further operational success in Ireland.
The place however where the threat from any kind of IRA remains incredibly potent is in the Irish Republic. As corrosive and destabilising agents of state subversion, the republican paramilitaries (be they any of the IRAs or INLA splinters) are bad enough but as players on the criminal landscape, they bring a whole new level of hardware and expertise that ups both the ante and the body count.

Pipe bombs have, over the past decade, become an increasingly common feature of life in the Dublin criminal underworld. They are being used in a way that suggests intimidation rather than assassination as an objective.
A member of the Gardaí explained it this way to a reporter; “If a device is left outside your house or under your car or whatever, it obviously means you are being targeted and threatened by people with access to explosives...who know where you live and what car you drive. If they have left an explosive device at your house they have obviously been creeping around outside and that can put people under strain; especially, maybe, the wives or girlfriends of the people who are being targeted. So there’s a number of messages wrapped up in all of that.”

In October 2012, it was reported that the Irish "Army bomb disposal team call-out rate jumped to 180 in 2008 and rose to 196 in 2009 and to 198 in 2010. In 2011 the call-out rate reached 236, with 70 viable devices attended to. That was the highest level since 1979, at the height of the Troubles."

The Irish Times article went on to state that up to October, there had been 155 call-outs and 71 viable devices have been dealt with, including 13 that had already exploded. Since that article was written, the Irish Army Website records call-outs another 7 viable devices before the end of 2012. That would be a lot of bomb scares in a country ten times the size of Ireland.

In the final analysis, these groups are probably more likely to continue splitting than coalescing, with various splinters occasionally coming together before fracturing again; with the reasons for these murderous fall-outs becoming ever more pedantic, parochial and personality-based.

Once this kind of dynamic is established, these organisations are more likely to shoot each other in turf squabbles with criminal gangs than to target members of the British security forces. (The case of the INLA is a salutary tale in this regard for all republican groupings -- born of a murderous split with the Marxist Official IRA in 1974; briefly, spectacularly notorious for the assassination of Airey Neave in Westminster in 1979 before descending into internecine slaughter and gangsterism.)


In 1995 Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams was heckled at a Republican rally with the jeer: 'Bring back the IRA'. Adams response was swift: 'They haven't gone away you know'. He was right but certainly not in the way he'd envisaged.

The resilience of these dissident organisations is phenomenal. Their philosophy is a clarion call through history from the days of the United Irishmen's 1798 Rebellion through the Fenian dynamiters of the late 1800s and on to the IRAs of the twentieth century. The old compelling mantra of 'Ireland divided can never be at peace' has sustained armed-force republicans for generations.

As we drew close to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the shadow of the gunman stubbornly persists in Irish life, even if the current shower of urban guerrillas are more Sopranos than The Wind That Shakes The Barley.