Belfast judge rules Real IRA is not a banned organisation

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The Independent Online

A Belfast judge took the political world by surprise yesterday in ruling that the Real IRA - the terrorist group that killed 29 people in the 1998 Omagh bombing - was not a proscribed organisation.

A Belfast judge took the political world by surprise yesterday in ruling that the Real IRA - the terrorist group that killed 29 people in the 1998 Omagh bombing - was not a proscribed organisation.

Mr Justice Girvan made his ruling at Belfast Crown Court as he acquitted four men of membership of the dissident republican faction. He said the Real IRA was not listed in a legal schedule of banned organisations, which referred only to "the IRA". Although acquitted of this charge, the four men remain on trial accused of conspiracy to murder and possession of a rocket-launcher in Co Tyrone in February 2002.

But the judge's ruling on the Real IRA, which is against the peace process and continues to carry out sporadic bomb attacks, caused consternation in legal and political circles.

The universal assumption had been that the organisation was illegal in the UK under a 1998 Act passed in the wake of the Omagh attack. The judge based his ruling on the absence of the word "Real" from the schedule of banned groups.

The issue has not arisen under parallel legislation which was introduced simultaneously in the Republic of Ireland. Suspects there are charged with belonging to "Oglaigh na hEireann," the Irish translation of IRA.

Among those convicted in the Republic are Michael McKevitt, leader of the Real IRA at the time of Omagh. A week ago another senior Real IRA figure, Liam Campbell, was convicted on two charges of membership.

Last night a spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said: "The Government is very concerned at this ruling, and the Director of Public Prosecutions is forwarding a report to the Attorney General with a view to an appeal. The Government is clear that the Real IRA should be a proscribed organisation."

The surprise ruling is more of an embarrassment than an emergency, since no republican suspects have gained their freedom because of it. If the judge's ruling stands then presumably the authorities will move quickly to specifically add the Real IRA to the schedule of prohibited organisations.

Michael Gallagher, whose son, Aidan, was killed in the Omagh bombing, said: "It just leaves you without words that something like this can happen. This is an organisation that's hell-bent on creating death and devastation."

Mr Justice Girvan said in court that under current legislation an organisation was proscribed only if it was listed or operated under the same name as a listed organisation.

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