The Big Question: How active is the Real IRA, and what can the security forces do about it?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

The brother of a leader of the Real IRA – which killed 29 people in the Omagh bombing – yesterday went on trial in Lithuania charged with attempting to import guns and explosives into Ireland. Michael Campbell was said in court to have been arrested following an operation involving British, Irish and Lithuanian intelligence agencies. The Lithuanians also want to put on trial his brother Liam Campbell, who has been named in a Belfast court as a Real IRA leader. The terrorist organisation is still active in Northern Ireland.

It is the fag-end of physical force republicanism in Ireland, still committed to the idea of using violence to "win the war" and drive British forces into the sea. This is the philosophy of what is called dissident republicanism. It holds to the ancient view, explicitly or tacitly abandoned by almost all other republicans, that there will not be lasting peace until Britain leaves Ireland for good.

What support has it got?

In political terms, tending towards zero. It has no elected representatives – no MPs, no members of the Belfast Assembly, not even a councillor; in fact it has no coherent political wing. By contrast mainstream republicanism, in the form of Sinn Fein, gathers votes in the tens of thousands. In one election in recent years a Sinn Fein candidate collected 7,000 votes while a dissident republican opponent took just four hundred.

Where did the group originate?

Its founders broke away from the main IRA and Sinn Fein in the early 1990s in protest against the peace process which they claimed flew in the face of traditional republicanism. They alleged – rightly, as it turned out – that the process would end in the disappearance of the IRA.

Its first leader, Mickey McKevitt, was a long-time quartermaster of the main IRA, in charge of its weaponry: he is now languishing in jail in the Irish Republic, serving a 20-year sentence for directing terrorism. In his absence the Real IRA split in two, with border republican Liam Campbell prominent in the ranks of one faction. Currently on remand in Northern Ireland, he is facing extradition to Lithuania on arms charges.

What has the Real IRA achieved?

Above all else, it has brought death. In 1998, just as Northern Ireland seemed set for peace and a political settlement, it detonated a bomb in the County Tyrone town of Omagh, killing 29 people as well as unborn twins. In June of this year Liam Campbell was one of four people held responsible for the bombing by a Belfast judge who, in a landmark legal ruling, awarded more than £1.6m damages against them. Faced with a tidal wave of condemnation and revulsion after Omagh, the Real IRA declared a ceasefire but after a time returned to its old ways.

Over the years it maintained a low-level campaign of bombing attempts, many of which went wrong. It was responsible for a small number of deaths, most of them resulting from feuding and fall-outs in the republican undergrowth. But over the last couple of years its activities escalated, and in March it killed two soldiers at a base at Massereene in County Antrim. A number of people have been charged with the murders.

What other activities does it engage in?

In its own miniature way it carries on the complex business of being a paramilitary group. When McKevitt left the old IRA he took with him an amount of guns and Semtex plastic explosives, but the organisation has been detected trying to smuggle in fresh supplies from Lithuania, Croatia and Slovakia.

Within Ireland it carries out occasional robberies and shootings and is involved both in organised crime and in staging riots. It has caused a number of explosions and used hoax devices to cause disruption and been responsible for assaults and letter-bombs. It has carried out surveillance on potential targets such as police officers and trained its members in shooting and bombing. It has also been known to experiment with different types of explosive devices.

So who keeps it going?

After the old IRA ceased its activities it attempted to recruit some of its former members, but with limited success. A mixture of seasoned republican veterans and raw recruits keep the Real IRA active. Police say the old hands prey on "disenfranchised, marginalised youth." Sinn Fein echoes this assessment, saying the Real IRA takes in "criminal and anti-social elements, people who are almost outside of society, involved in car theft, general anti-social behaviour, those who peddle and use drugs."

What is the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA?

Poisonous. The Real IRA has long regarded Sinn Fein leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as leaders who had betrayed traditional republicanism. After the Massereene killings McGuinness caused a major stir when he called the gunmen "traitors".

Following that denunciation police warned that dissident republicans were considering targeting him and other Sinn Fein leaders. One theory is that more republicans might class themselves as dissidents because of the overall political situation. Sinn Fein have a large vote but there is an undercurrent of nationalist dissatisfaction that, despite being in government, they have not achieved more.

How do the security forces tackle the problem of the Real IRA?

Police on both sides of the Irish border, together with MI5, devote huge resources to combating the organisation, and have successfully locked up scores of dissidents. Everyone knows that the police and intelligence agencies have managed to place agents and informers in their ranks.

Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde has openly spelt this out, declaring: "They are well infiltrated both north and south of the border, and are paranoid about their activity because we keep disrupting it. We keep arresting people, we have good coverage, but the harsh reality is we never have and have never had a full intelligence picture."

The infiltration is obvious, given the number of arrests and the number of Real IRA operations which mysteriously go wrong – a sure sign that agents are at work within the organisation.

In one case a major dissident figure was spirited away by the authorities to start a new life elsewhere. But at the same time the Real IRA has managed to stay in lethal business in spite of the Omagh atrocity, Northern Ireland's political settlement, and all the continuing attentions of the intelligence services.

What else could be done?

The political world, which includes Sinn Fein, will be seeking to show that politics works and that there is no basis for "armed struggle." But the last decade has shown that even a tiny group with no appreciable political support can continue to keep on.

In doing so they have a significant negative impact in that the police have to continue to maintain a defensive posture to protect themselves and society. This slows down the process of post-troubles normalisation. The unfortunate lesson seems to be that eradicating the last vestiges of terrorism will take much more effort and, in all probability, many more years.

Is Real IRA terrorism having any effect?

Yes...

* It has killed two soldiers this year and launched various other attacks which have caused disruption

* Eleven years after Omagh it is still in business, active both in Belfast and seeking arms abroad

* It is obstructing the normalisation of Northern Ireland and hindering the development of civilian policing

No...

* It has failed to prevent the fledgling political settlement which has attracted huge support

* It has been hit by many arrests north and south, with several major figures behind bars

* It remains a small fringe organisation which has mostly attracted only low-quality recruits