Omagh Bombing by Real IRA

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Omagh Bombing by Real IRA

"Omagh Massacre: Loyalists Signal Their Ceasefire is Secure"

Newspaper article

By: John Mullin and Ewen MacAskill

Date: August 17, 1998

Source: "Omagh Massacre: Loyalists Signal Their Ceasefire is Secure," as published by the Guardian Unlimited (London).

About the Author: Ewen MacAskill serves as the Guardian's chief political correspondent and diplomatic editor. John Mullin, the executive news editor of The Independent was a Guardian staff reporter in 1998.


The Irish Republican Army (IRA) formed in 1916 to free Ireland from long-time British rule. Upon the division of Ireland in 1922, the IRA opposed the creation of Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland and sought to protect the civil rights of Catholics. In 1939, the IRA began a bombing campaign in Great Britain that prompted the Irish government to ban it in cooperation with the British government. In 1955, the IRA became active against the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Northern Ireland but was again stifled by Anglo-Irish cooperation. In 1969, the IRA divided with the more nationalistic Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) seeking unification of Ireland by force. The original IRA allegedly renounced armed struggle in 1972 and became the Worker's Party to compete openly in electoral politics. When the PIRA declared a ceasefire in Northern Ireland in 1997, over one hundred dissidents led by Michael "Mickey" McKevitt elected to continue the campaign of violence under the name of Real IRA.

The Real IRA (RIRA) is a small Catholic group that opposes British rule in predominantly-Protestant Northern Ireland. Allied with the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, the RIRA carried out a number of relatively minor bombings in Ireland prior to the 1998 Omagh attack. The explosion of a car bomb in the shopping center of Omagh killed twenty-nine people and injured 220 others. It was the single worst act of terrorism in the entire history of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.

The Omagh massacre aimed at derailing the Northern Ireland peace process. Since the 1960s, the IRA had been opposed in Northern Ireland by a Protestant terrorist organization, the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) and its military branch, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). The UDA sought Protestant domination. It opposed the British imposition of home rule in Northern Ireland as an attempt to undermine Protestant authority. The UDA and the UFF, who occasionally worked in conjunction with British security forces, are believed to be responsible for the killings of more than four hundred Catholics. In its heyday in the early 1970s, the UDA claimed 40,000 to 50,000 members but movements toward peace in Northern Ireland resulted in a loss of members. By the Omagh bombing, the UDA likely numbered less than 10,000 but it added to its strength by joining with another paramilitary organization, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in the 1990s. An equally violent Protestant terrorist organization, the UVF cooperated with UDA in the Combined Loyalist Military Command before the two groups had a violent falling-out in 2001.

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The IRA historically targeted British Army troops, Northern Ireland security forces, judicial officials, prison wardens and guards, and members of Ulster Protestant political parties and militias. The large number of civilian deaths and injuries at Omagh caused a widespread wave of revulsion toward the Real IRA. The bombing was condemned by Protestants and Catholics, both Irish and British. Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA and the major Catholic participant in the peace talks, condemned the attack. In response, the RIRA claimed that the killing of civilians had been accidental and it declared a ceasefire in September 1998. Two years later, the RIRA resumed attacks against British interests in Northern Ireland and on the English mainland. In 2001, the U.S. government formally declared the RIRA to be a foreign terrorist organization, a designation that permits the government to freeze the assets of anyone tied to the RIRA in the U.S. The designation attempted to block the RIRA from receiving funds from Irish-American supporters, historically among the largest financial backers of the IRA and related IRA organizations.

The Omagh bombing raised concerns that the UDA would retaliate against Catholics and set off another wave of violence. The UDA alternately participated and rejected ceasefires in the years since the Omagh massacre. In February 2003, it declared a unilateral ceasefire and apologized for fundraising through drug trafficking and racketeering.

In 2003, the Real IRA joined with the Continuity IRA (CIRA) in a promise of continuing attacks on Protestants and Northern Ireland security forces. The CIRA, rumored to be associated with a dissident offshoot of Sinn Fein known as Republican Sinn Fein, reportedly has fewer than fifty members.

The terror campaign conducted by the RIRA may have ultimately weakened the organization. The violence of Omagh, especially the numbers of dead and injured civilians, reduced public support for the group in Northern Ireland. The violence made RIRA appear to be less a true army and more of a collection of outlaws. It also hardened Irish Protestant attitudes toward militant Irish nationalists and may have strengthened the resolve of some British officials to not retreat from Northern Ireland.



Cronin, Audrey. Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Washington, D.C.: CRS, 2004.

Dunnigan, John P. Deep-Rooted Conflict and the IRA Cease-Fire. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995.

Geraghty, Tony. The Irish War: The Hidden Conflict Between the IRA and British Intelligence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2000.

Mooney, John and Michael O'Toole. Black Operations: The Secret War Against the Real IRA. Ashbourne, Ireland: Maverick House, 2003.

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Omagh Bombing by Real IRA

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