Self-styled purists of republican revolution

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The Independent Online

Ireland Correspondent

The genesis of the Irish National Republican Army - a grandiose title for the reality of a small and scattered group of dissidents - can be traced back to an evening in Dublin nine years ago.

In November 1986 Ruairi O Bradaigh, together with the late Daithi O Conaill and several dozen others, turned their back on Sinn Fein by stalking out of the party's annual conference, denouncing Gerry Adams as having sold the republican movement's soul.

They said they would not accept the historic conference decision which allowed Sinn Fein candidates to take their seats in the Dail in Dublin. They argued that the dropping of the decades-old principle of abstentionism would blunt the IRA's revolutionary edge.

Mr O Bradaigh argued that taking seats would put the republican movement on a path which would inevitably lead it to end its violence and become purely political - "the armed struggle and sitting in parliaments are mutually exclusive", he declared.

This was countered by Martin McGuinness, who in an equally passionate speech responded: "I reject the notion that this would mean an end to Sinn Fein's unapologetic support for the right of the Irish people to oppose in arms the British forces of occupation. Our position is clear and it will never, never, never change: the war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved."

Mr O Bradaigh and Mr O Conaill set up a political party, Republican Sinn Fein, whose title was intended to convey that they were the purist standard- bearers of republican tradition. RSF has ever since been a minor splinter group.

The reason why it was not viewed as relevant was that although Sinn Fein split in 1986 the IRA did not. A minority of IRA members agreed with O Bradaigh but agreed to abide by the majority decision. They remained in the IRA, which meant RSF was seen as a political party and nothing more.

Within the last few years, however, reports began to circulate that RSF was putting together a military wing. The first major sign of this came a year ago when in the wake of the IRA cessation of violence gardai in the Irish Republic launched a major search and arrest operation against what they described as the INRA.

Mr O Bradaigh says he has no knowledge of the title "INRA" and that RSF as such has no part in violence. Gardai are nonetheless convinced that there is an association between the RSF and INRA.

Mr O Bradaigh has been an implacable opponent of the policies pursued by Gerry Adams ever since the 1980s, and he made it clear that he disapproved of the 1994 ceasefire. He views Mr Adams, who had in the early 1980s replaced him as president of Sinn Fein, as an unprincipled pragmatist who has misled the republican movement. He regards the ceasefire as a sell-out.

The question arises of how much capability the INRA retains for further attacks. No reliable figures of the INRA's strength are available, but it is clearly only a fraction of the size of the IRA.

In the months following the ceasefire a number of small explosive devices were planted in Newry, Co Down, and Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and it is now believed these were the work of the INRA. There were no injuries, but were a clear sign that someone did not wish the peace process to succeed.

Mr O Bradaigh said yesterday that "a dribble" of Sinn Fein members who did not agree with the peace process had switched to his party. There are however no indications of any large-scale defections by disgruntled members of the IRA or Sinn Fein.

Gardai and Irish army presence along the border, in common with British security activity on the northern side, has been wound down considerably since the IRA ceasefire. But the lack of IRA and extreme loyalist activity clearly frees many security force personnel to concentrate on the INRA and, as yesterday's seizure shows, surveillance on the group has been close.

The INRA is said to have been in informal contact with another splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army, which has not been active but which has never formally declared a ceasefire.