Hidden influence of the shadowy Officials: As the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, meets for its annual conference in Dundalk today, David McKittrick examines the other IRA, the Officials

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The Independent Online
OFFICIALLY, the Official IRA does not exist: its former adherents claim publicly that it disbanded in the 1970s.

Yet the security forces, politicians and people in the republican ghettos of Belfast know very well that official republicanism is not dead.

It has a significance well beyond its limited numbers. The political organisation that grew from it, the Workers' Party, holds a number of seats in the Dail. Its general philosophy has attracted a number of intellectuals and has had a significant effect on political thinking in the republic.

The Official IRA also has an important effect on Provisional IRA thinking. The Provisionals regard the Officials with contempt, believing that they have degenerated from republicanism into hypocritical revisionists. An IRA ceasefire, the argument goes, would lead the Provisionals into a similar cul-de-sac.

According to both Provisional and security sources, the Official IRA is still a well-armed organisation. Its members associate in half a dozen drinking clubs in Belfast, occasionally organising armed robberies and punishment beatings of their opponents.

The old IRA split into the Officials and Provisionals in 1969- 1970. The Provisionals viewed the Officials as Marxists who were pursuing the chimera of working class unity and had forgotten their duty to defend Catholic areas. The Officials condemned the Provisionals as sectarian right- wing nationalists.

Both groups were active in violence in the early Seventies. The Officials killed a number of members of the security forces and in 1972, in retaliation for Bloody Sunday, blew up the Parachute Regiment's headquarters at Aldershot. This bomb killed five cleaning women, a gardener and a priest.

In the same year the Officials declared a ceasefire. In all they killed 26 people in outbreaks of violence, and had 32 of their own members or supporters killed.

Many of the Officials went on to join their movement's political wing, which over the years called itself first Official Sinn Fein, then Sinn Fein - the Workers' Party, and finally the Workers' Party. It has been one of the few parties to organise in both parts of Ireland.

Over the years policy changed dramatically. The British presence came to be regarded in a much more benign light. Irish nationalism was generally denounced, with much emphasis being laid on the rights of Protestants and Unionists.

The striking change of approach is illustrated by the fact that leading Workers' Party members have made common cause with Unionists.

In the north, the Workers' Party has been a failure electorally. In the south, however, the party had seven members in the Dail, plus an MEP, in 1989.

It attracted much new, young talent, including many with no republican background. The Workers' Party is vehemently anti Provisional IRA, supporting the internment of republicans and regularly denouncing terrorism.

Yet over the years allegations have persisted that some connected with the party operate in ways that are far from orthodox. There has been a widespread belief that party members have infiltrated trade unions and, in particular, broadcasting in the republic.

Another more serious allegation was that the WP, through its acknowledged links with the former Eastern Bloc, was secretly being funded by 'Moscow gold'.

Most serious of all were the intermittent claims that the Official IRA not only continued to exist but helped to finance the WP through armed robberies. The WP's response to all of this was denial.

But the opening of Communist Party archives in Moscow has led to the discovery of a number of documents bearing the signatures of Workers' Party leaders.

And five prominent broadcasters have been named as WP members or sympathisers. Two others acknowledged receipt of dollars 100,000 ( pounds 714,285) from the Communist Party. Another document, a plea for pounds 1m to finance WP expansion, contains a reference to mysterious 'special activities' which observers claim is a reference to armed robberies. WP leaders deny everything in the documents.

In the north, meanwhile, the Official IRA has been mentioned in a series of court cases, with individuals referred to in courts as members of both the WP and the Official IRA. A BBC investigation discovered that the papers of WP election candidates had been signed by individuals convicted of building-site racketeering and possession of weapons.

A year ago, under these and other pressures, the WP split, with most of its Dail members forming a new party known as Democratic Left. Many of its Dail seats were lost as more people came to suspect that it was a party with more to it than met the eye.