Real IRA

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Real IRA

"Armed Opponents of Peace Accord Elude Pursuers"

Newspaper article

By: John Murray Brown

Date: August 6, 1998

Source: Financial Times.

About the Author: John Murray Brown is a staff writer for the Financial Times, a daily newspaper based in London.


For the majority of Northern Ireland's population, the Good Friday Agreement—a peace treaty signed in April 1998 by all the main parties involved in Northern Ireland's thirty year-long troubles—had finally seemed to bring a political settlement to the province. It offered power-sharing between the main parties in a government that was devolved from Westminster (England). The hope of most Irish Republicans (Irish nationalists who advocate uniting Northern Ireland, currently part of Britain, with the independent Irish Republic) was that this agreement would eventually lead to a united Ireland.

For some, however, the Good Friday Agreement amounted to political treachery. The Republican movement had a long tradition of refusing to recognize the British crown, and British rule in the province. Sections of the agreement also refused to even acknowledge the British government altogether (and also the Irish government, which was regarded as having betrayed Ulster when it signed over the Province to the British as part of independence negotiations in 1921), and would not countenance any negotiations. As early as the mid-1980s, the Continuity IRA had been formed in response to Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army) ending its abstention from the Dail (Irish Parliament) and had begun carrying out violence in 1997 when the IRA announced a ceasefire ahead of the negotiations that preceded the Good Friday Agreement.

Around the same time, a second splinter group of dissident republicans, who became known as the Real IRA formed. Several senior IRA members joined in late 1997, including an IRA quartermaster. Its most high-profile and vociferous member was Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, sister of the late IRA terrorist, Bobby Sands, who in 1981 led a famous hunger strike among IRA members detained in Maze prison. (Sands and nine other prisoners died in 1981 during their protest.)

British intelligence was concerned by these developments. They asserted that members of the Real IRA were unrelenting hardliners who possessed the weaponry and know-how to perpetrate savage terrorist attacks. Moreover, their lack of a top-down leadership structure (as the IRA had always boasted) made them more difficult to infiltrate. Bombings on the towns of Moira and Portadown in early 1998 showed that Real IRA members worked in splinter cells and seemingly carried out attacks independent of a conventional command structure.

The first attacks by the Real IRA had been relatively minor, but on August 1, 1998, a large bomb was set off at peak shopping time in the center of the town of Banbridge. A warning had been received shortly before the explosion, but it did not provide sufficient time to prevent injuries to more than thirty people or prevent millions of dollars worth of damage.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


The attack on Banbridge marked the arrival of the Real IRA, and a fortnight later they would carry out an attack that would secure their notoriety forever. In an almost identical bombing, a 500-pound car bomb was set off at the height of shopping time in the small County Tyrone town of Omagh, killing twenty-nine people (including a woman pregnant with twins) and injuring two hundred. This was the worst terrorist action in the province's history, and, barring the Lockerbie bombing, the worst act of terrorism ever carried out on British soil until the London transport bombings of 2005.

Revulsion across the political spectrum after Omagh led to a massive crack down on the nascent organization. Many of the Real IRA's most visible leaders were arrested, and a huge joint operation between MI5 (Britain's domestic intelligence service) and Irish Gardai (police) to infiltrate and track down Real IRA members was carried out. Throughout 1999 and much of 2000, further arrests were made, arms seized, and no further attacks followed. However, in September 2000, a missile attack on MI5's headquarters in London marked an end to the apparent cessation in hostilities. Three more attacks followed on mainland Britain over the next six months, but these were all low-tech attacks causing minimal injuries and disruption.

Not until August 2002 would the Real IRA again claim a life, when a booby trap at a Territorial Army (British Army Reserves) camp in County Londonderry killed a maintenance worker.

However, the organization has become increasingly marginalized. In October 2002, a message from Real IRA members in Portlaoise Prison in the Irish Republic, denounced the organization's leadership as corrupt, saying that it had "forfeited all moral authority", and called for its immediate disbandment. The group has since been virtually silent, although this may merely coincide with the current stalling in the peace process, after the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended in October 2002 following the refusal of the IRA-proper to decommission its weapons.



McKittrick, David and McVeigh, David. Making Sense of the Troubles. London: Penguin,

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

Web sites

Jane's Intelligence Review. "The Real IRA: after Omagh, what now?" August 24, 1998. <> (accessed July 8, 2005).