The Real IRA: a real and dangerous threat
Belfast — The Real IRA, a splinter group of dissident paramilitaries, poses a serious and continuing threat in Northern Ireland, according to the latest report by a watchdog body.
The Real Irish Republican Army, which opposes the peace process in the province, is a small but dangerous group that broke off from the main Provisional IRA in 1997.
It is opposed to the 1998 Good Friday peace accords between pro-British Protestant and Catholic republican militant groups.
The group has claimed Saturday’s shooting at the British Army’s Massereene barracks in Antrim, northwest of Belfast, which left two soldiers dead plus two other soldiers and two pizza delivery men seriously wounded.
In its last bi-annual report, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) — the independent watchdog on paramilitarism in Northern Ireland — concluded in November that the Real IRA was a "serious and continuing threat and that it is likely to remain so. It presents a continuing threat to lives."
Catholic paramilitaries, the Real IRA are republicans — those wanting Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland — vowing to pursue their cause through violent means.
The Real IRA achieved notoriety by carrying out the worst single atrocity in three decades of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland — the August 1998 car bombing in Omagh town that killed 29 people and injured hundreds of others.
In the face of widespread condemnation, the group — which is based both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland — soon announced a ceasefire, but did not abide by it for long.
The IMC said in November that the Real IRA had been particularly active over the previous six months, listing explosions, acts of brutality and hoax telephone calls and were heavily involved in criminality.
"The great majority of the republican shootings and assaults over the period… were the responsibility of Real IRA members," the IMC said.
The Real IRA was born in October 1997, after splitting from the main IRA over the latter’s willingness to participate in the peace process.
It was opposed to the dismantling of republican arsenals — a key demand of the Good Friday pact — which its members regarded as a betrayal of the republican cause.
The Real IRA’s political wing is the hardline 32 County Sovereignty Movement that emerged from a split within the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein — which now sits in the Northern Ireland government.
The movement was started by Bernadette Sands, sister of IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands who died in prison in 1981.
When it was created, the Real IRA was believed to have a membership of 100 to 200, including several IRA bomb makers.
In 1999, it acquired sophisticated rocket-propelled grenade launchers from eastern Europe.
One of these devices was used in an attack on September 20, 2000 on the central London headquarters of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service. The attack was high-profile, but nobody was injured.
The arrest in March 2001 of the Real IRA’s leader Michael McKevitt was a devastating blow for the group, which nevertheless announced in July 2002 that it intended to carry on with a campaign of attacks.
McKevitt was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a special Dublin court in August 2003 after he was convicted of directing terrorism.
While marking its renewed threat, the IMC now believes that there are at least two factions in the Real IRA.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Monday: "The Real IRA have no place in the politics of Northern Ireland. These are callous murderers, these are terrorists.
"These people have got to be hunted down and brought to justice."