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The Real IRA: after Omagh, what now?

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The Real IRA: after Omagh, what now?

By Sean Boyne

The following in-depth analysis is taken from the October 1998 issue of Jane's Intelligence Review, which is soon to be available via the Internet. The full report in the magazine additionally includes photographs and a comprehensive breakdown of operations attributed to, or suspected of being linked to, the RIRA.

The Irish Republican paramilitary group the 'Real IRA' (RIRA), aka Oglaigh na hEireann, recently became one of the most reviled terrorist gangs in the world when, on 15 August, it set off a car bomb in the Northern Irish town of Omagh, killing 28 civilians and injuring more than 200. It was the worst single atrocity in three decades of the Irish Troubles. This article analyses the RIRA and its likely future after Omagh.

Origins of the RIRA

The RIRA is a hardline splinter group that broke away in late 1997 from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), aka the Provisional IRA (PIRA) or Provos. The founding members of the RIRA objected to the ceasefire called by the IRA in 1997 and to the involvement of the Republican movement in the peace process. Ignoring the overwhelming vote in the May referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic in favour of the Good Friday peace agreement, the RIRA instead chose to continue with the 'armed struggle' to secure a British withdrawal from the North and Irish re-unification.

The RIRA evolved after dissensions in the Republican movement came to a head at a convention of senior PIRA figures at Gweedore, Co Donegal, in October 1997. Hardline elements had been concerned for some time about a gradual move by the leaders of the PIRA and of Sinn Fein (SF), its political wing, towards a peace strategy. Dissident Provos had already begun to break the July 97 ceasefire. The hardline elements, who wanted to press on with the campaign of violence, were in a minority at the meeting, albeit a significant minority.

Following a stormy debate, one of the leading dissidents was out-manoeuvred and forced to resign his position on the 12-person Army Executive.

This man was a particularly significant figure, as he had for about 10 years been the PIRA's quartermaster general (QMG) in charge of procuring and storing war materiel. The PIRA is the best-armed terrorist organisation in Western Europe, and the QMG was in charge of its sizeable arsenal of weapons, ammunition and explosives - much of it imported from Libya in the mid-1980s - as well as arms procurement. The man's common law wife, the only female member of the IRA's Army Council, also resigned. The Executive is an influential body within the PIRA, one of its roles being to elect the seven-person Army Council which runs the PIRA on a day-to day-basis.

The allied political group

As the RIRA built up its strength, a political group emerged in December 1997 that shared its ideology. This group, known as the 32 County Sovereignty Committee (32CSC) was launched at a meeting in Dublin. It has always denied claims by security sources that it is the political wing of the RIRA and has always insisted it is not involved in violence. One of the senior figures in this group is the vice chairperson, Bernadette Sands McKevitt, a sister of the IRA 'martyr' figure Bobby Sands who died on hunger strike at the Maze Prison in 1981. She is the partner of Michael McKevitt, a Co Louth businessman and a long- time Republican.

Some of the leading figures in the 32CSC were members of Sinn Fein (SF). However, that party has decided that membership of SF is incompatible with membership of the 32CSC. The chairperson of the 32CSC is Francie Mackey, an ex- SF councillor in, ironically, Omagh. The group's fund-raiser in the USA is New York lawyer Martin Galvin, formerly a key figure in Noraid, the SF-allied group that raised funds for political prisoners.

RIRA structure

Following his departure from the PIRA, the ex-QMG went on to form the RIRA with an embryo structure along PIRA lines. The new group is said to have an Army Executive and an Army Council, with the ex-QMG as so-called chief of staff (CoS). He was joined by other senior PIRA figures, including some members of the General Headquarters Staff, which comes below the Army Council in the PIRA chain of command.

RIRA build-up, strength, location of key members, capability

The indications are that the RIRA's main strength is in the Irish Republic and that it has taken over sizeable elements of the PIRA's Southern Command. It recruited up to 30 experienced operators from the PIRA ranks, mainly in the Republic but also in some areas north of the Border, especially South Armagh, as well as a number of 'foot soldiers'. In addition, it embarked on a clandestine campaign to enroll new young recruits previously uninvolved in paramilitary activity.

The RIRA has been under surveillance for some months by members of the Garda (Irish police) Special Branch and National Surveillance Unit. Gardai indentified about 50 'sleepers' who were previously unknown to them. The RIRA has sought to recruit discreetly among third-level students in the greater Dublin area and also among youths in working-class housing estates in border towns such as Dundalk and Newry. It is likely there are other operators as yet unidentified by security forces. Apart from a hard core of about 30 operators, the RIRA is reckoned to have scores of 'second line' members. Estimates of total membership have varied widely from about 70 at the lower end of the spectrum to 175. Some analysts think the most likely figure is about 100.

The RIRA CoS who, with some of his close aides, is based in north Co Louth, succeeded in recruiting some of the PIRA's top bomb-makers, including a Dublin tradesman in his thirties known as 'The Engineer'. This man has been a prime garda suspect for the manufacture of the Omagh bomb - and also for the London bombs that devastated The City financial district (1993) and Canary Wharf (1996). He has sometimes evaded garda surveillance by using a motorbike. He has been observed driving off at high speed from the home of the CoS, with the latter as a pillion passenger: an effective way to throw off a 'tail'. Other important recruits were the former head of a PIRA bomb-making unit in Monaghan and an experienced bomb-maker from Drumintee, South Armagh. The enrolment of such men meant that the RIRA had a vital bomb-making capability. These men have the skill to make home-made explosives (HME), to prepare bombs and to assemble a range of mortars.

Other key figures who joined the RIRA included the Dublin-based former chief of the PIRA Southern Command, a Belfast man who was sacked after a dispute with PIRA leaders about two years ago. Two important figures in the Munster region who tended local arms dumps also defected. One was the QMG in the Fermoy region of Co Cork; the other was the QMG in the West Limerick area. The RIRA boss also recruited a senior PIRA figure in Cork city. An entire PIRA unit in Tipperary is said to have gone over to the RIRA with its arms.

One area of Munster where the RIRA failed to make headway is Co Kerry, where senior SF figure Martin Ferris, convicted of PIRA arms smuggling in the 1980s, has remained loyal to the Adams/McGuinness leadership of SF. PIRA members in Co Donegal have also mostly remained loyal, this being an area where SF Vice- President Pat Dohery has strong local support, as have members in Co Monaghan, the power base of Caoimhghin O Caolain, SF member of the Irish Parliament (Dail). The RIRA is believed to have some members in the south Donegal and north Leitrim region. The organisation is also believed to have enrolled former PIRA members or sympathisers in counties Kildare, Wexford, Laois, Louth and in the greater Dublin area. Many members of the Dublin Brigade of the PIRA are said to have gone over to the RIRA.

North of the Border, the RIRA CoS recruited at least two senior PIRA men in the South Armagh area, as well as other support. Some analysts believe that after the gardai foiled a number of RIRA operations, the group moved its main bomb- making factory from the Louth-Monaghan area of the Republic across the border to South Armagh, a traditional hotbed of Republican support. The RIRA is also believed to have some members in the Newry area of Co Down as well as the Omagh area. There are some members in Belfast, but the RIRA has apparently made little attempt to recruit in that city or in Derry; Republicans in both centres have mostly remained loyal to the PIRA leadership and the Adams/McGuinness peace process strategy.

One of the RIRA chief's top aides is a Co Louth-based man who was formerly head of the PIRA in Newry. This man, now in his forties, served time in Northern Ireland for a variety of terrorist offences. He is suspected of being one of the gang who killed three RUC constables in Newry in 1986.

Links with other paramilitary groups

Security forces suspect that the RIRA has received covert support and backing from current members of the PIRA, especially members in Co Armagh who are dubious about the current peace process but who have not severed their links with the PIRA. However, such support may dwindle in the aftermath of Omagh. Security sources also believe that the RIRA has been liaising and co-ordinating with the two other Republican groups opposed to the peace process: the Continuity IRA (CIRA), a small group with a limited paramilitary capability linked to the fringe Republican Sinn Fein; and the Marxist hardline Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), which called a ceasefire after the Omagh massacre. It is understood that INLA members in the Border area assisted RIRA operations by stealing vehicles for car bombs. With a RIRA cessation of operations and an INLA ceasefire in force, the CIRA is the only dissident group that has not declared a ceasefire at the time of writing (24 August).

Paramilitary tactics of the RIRA

The RIRA has adopted some of the tactics used by the PIRA during the latter's campaign of violence.
  • The RIRA has sought to attack the North's economic infrastructure by setting off bombs in town centres and other locations.
  • The group has sought to inflict casualties on Northern Ireland's security forces by attacking their bases with home-made mortars and car bombs and to restrict their movements by road through the threat of landmines. The use of mortars has been largely ineffectual.
  • The RIRA has sought to fund its activities, especially arms procurement, by armed robbery.
  • It has set out to spread terror and disruption on the mainland UK by the use of incendiary bombs and car bombs.
All of these latter attempts have been foiled by police in the Republic and the UK. Security forces have feared that the RIRA may have put 'sleepers' in place in the UK for future attacks. The RIRA CoS was understood to be keen 'to bring the war to Britain'.

The RIRA's policy of blowing up town centres ultimately led to the Omagh massacre. The RIRA said it did not plan to cause civilian casualties, but it was obvious that the policy of setting off car bombs in busy towns, even with warnings, would inevitably lead to loss of life. The RIRA may have been prepared for a low level of dead or injured, but not the kind of carnage that occurred on 15 August.

Over the longer term, the RIRA seeks by violence to convince the British that it is time to withdraw from Northern Ireland and appears willing to see Protestants who cannot accept a united Ireland re-locate to the UK - a form of ethnic cleansing. In the shorter term, it has sought to embarrass the SF leaders as they become involved in the peace process by showing that the SF has failed to deliver peace. Some RIRA operations seemed timed to undermine specific moves in the peace process.

There is a belief that the RIRA has also been trying to provoke a Loyalist backlash. A Loyalist massacre of innocent Catholics in retaliation for an RIRA outrage would put great pressure on the Provos to break the ceasefire and retaliate. Had only Protestants died at Omagh, some Loyalists may well have gone back on the warpath. In fact both Catholics and Protestants died together, helping to unite the two communities against the bombers.

RIRA equipment

Some analysts have argued that the RIRA chief, because of his detailed knowledge of Provo arms dumps from his days as PIRA QMG, must have taken over this vast arsenal. This view was strengthened by the defection to the RIRA of at least two Provo regional QMGs. However, sources interviewed by the author believe that the RIRA has only taken small quantities of small arms and some Semtex, as well as some detonators and timing devices.

The Provisionals have maintained two types of dumps: 'army (or GHQ) dumps', where major reserves of materiel were stored, mainly in the Republic; and 'unit dumps' containing small amounts for the immediate use of local units. Sources in South Armagh believe that the RIRA has taken materiel only from certain unit dumps. It is possible that dissidents have been quietly filching materiel since the IRA ceasefire of 1994.

In a couple of cases, it is believed that entire units went over to the RIRA, taking their equipment with them. However, misappropriating war materiel is a capital offence under PIRA rules. Provo bosses may have been reluctant to kill offenders for fear of pushing waverers into the ranks of the dissidents. While the Provos may have turned a blind eye to small amounts of weaponry going astray, the RIRA boss may have considered that he was signing his own death warrant if he took over the major dumps.

However, there is always the danger that some of these dumps could be grabbed by dissident elements in the future. After all, the RIRA has control of areas where the Provos are believed to have had their major dumps, such as north Cork, Limerick and Tipperary. They also hold sway in the midlands, where the Provos manufactured many of their bombs and mortars. The Omagh atrocity has increased the pressure on the PIRA to decommission its large stocks of arms, including hundreds of assault rifles and an estimated 2.5 tonnes of Semtex. Reports have emerged of the Provisionals taking action to ensure that war materiel does not fall into the hands of the dissidents. In some cases, it is reported that weapons were moved to new locations in areas still controlled by the Provos and buried in deep cavities under rocks with the aid of excavators, but there is always a danger that other stocks are still vulnerable to being pilfered by dissidents.

The fact that the RIRA has been using bombs made from HME with perhaps a small Semtex charge to set them off, as opposed to more efficient devices made mainly from Semtex, reinforces the theory that the group has not taken over the sizeable Provo Semtex stores. (Some Semtex has also been used in the warheads of RIRA mortar rounds.) Sources close to the Provos have insisted that the RIRA have taken no materiel whatever from PIRA stores, but this is clearly not the full truth. There have been unconfirmed reports that the RIRA made contact with Libya with a view to renewing arms supply pipelines.

The RIRA: what lays in store?

The RIRA was embarrassed by the Omagh atrocity and by the revulsion that ensued throughout Ireland. It called a cessation of operations and has been under pressure from the Provisionals to disband. Similar pressure has come from the Dublin government, via an intermediary. There has been speculation that the PIRA might shoot those involved in the Omagh bombing. This probably will not happen as it would be embarrassing to the SF leadership.

The cessation may have been prompted partly by the tough new security measures announced by the Dublin and London governments following Omagh. However, some gardai believe the cessation may only be temporary, until the furore dies down. The RIRA has some battle-hardened terrorists in its ranks who are unlikely to be deterred from future violence by the Omagh tragedy. The RIRA CoS, although a wily, formidable operator, is not a man of any great intellectual depth and is likely to retain the prejudices of his past. Even if senior figures decide on a permanent ceasefire, there are likely to be other elements who will dissent and press ahead with the war. When the RIRA Executive met after Omagh, it is understood that only some favoured a ceasefire, while others wanted the fight to go on. In the end, the compromise was to call a cessation.

Claims to justification

RIRA members follow an extreme, fundamentalist Republican ideology. They claim their historical mandate for violence goes back to the Declaration of Independence of the 1919 Dail. This alleged mandate from a long-dead electorate conveniently allows them to ignore the clear wishes for peace of the vast majority of living Irish people - north and south - as expressed through parliamentary elections and referendums.

The RIRA is essentially a tiny fringe group, with no electoral mandate or popular support. It is not amenable to public opinion. Nevertheless, it would prefer to have public sympathy in the areas where it operates. Some observers believe that if the RIRA resumes hostilities, it will drop the tactic of bombing towns in the North because of the way Omagh backfired and concentrate instead on attacking the North's security forces and on bombing targets in the mainland UK. It is also possible that there could be a bloody feud between the RIRA and the Provos.

The RIRA is facing an uncertain future. In recent months, gardai have scored a series of successes against the group, giving rise to speculation that there is a mole in the ranks or that the Provos have infiltrated the group and are tipping off the authorities. The Omagh atrocity has turned the fury of the Irish public and media against those perceived to have RIRA links. A security clampdown by Dublin and London is likely to squeeze the RIRA pariahs even more. However, despite all this pressure, one can expect certain RIRA diehards to blithely ignore the clamour for peace and to cling to the policy of the bomb and the bullet.

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