Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA)

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Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA)



USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Northern Ireland; Republic of Ireland; mainland Britain


The Real IRA (RIRA) is a dissident Irish republican splinter group responsible for the Omagh bombing of August 1998—the single worst incident of Northern Ireland's thirty-year-long troubles—and several other attacks on mainland Britain. It was founded by several disgruntled members of the twelve-member executive group of the Provisional IRA in late 1997 as a response to the negotiations between its political wing, Sinn Fein, and the British and Irish governments. It regarded these talks, which would culminate in the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, as a betrayal of republicanism and saw its mission as continuing the armed struggle.


The slow entry of Sinn Fein—and, in turn, the Provisional IRA—into Ireland's peacemaking process, begun when Gerry Adams was elected its president in 1983, had been regarded by sections of the republican movement with suspicion and contempt. In 1985, a former Sinn Fein president, Ruari O'Bradaigh, had led a breakaway group, Republican Sinn Fein, when the party's long-standing policy of abstention from the Irish Parliament, the Dail, ended. Republican Sinn Fein's military wing, the Continuity IRA (CIRA), began terrorist activity following the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994.

Perhaps if O'Bradaigh had not been regarded as yesterday's man and his organization not seen as amateurish, his fledgling party may have made a deeper impact within republican politics at a time when closer cooperation with the British and Irish governments was raising concerns among parts of the republican community. Throughout late 1997 and on into 1998, the Continuity IRA made a number of bombings in an effort to disrupt peace talks, but these acts failed to make the desired impact.

It increasingly appeared that if any serious effort would be made to derail the peace process in accordance with historical principles of Irish nationalism, it would come from within the Provisional IRA itself. In late 1997, several of the IRA's twelve-member executive group left in opposition to Sinn Fein's backing of the Mitchell Principles on democracy and nonviolence. These were designed to act as a precursor to full-scale political negotiations on power-sharing the following year. In the weeks running up to a special Provisional IRA convention, where it was expected that Sinn Fein would be given the go-ahead to enter into new political negotiations, the dissidents released a statement stating that the ceasefire was over and that there would be a return to military action. The dissidents called themselves the Real IRA and denounced the "old leadership" of the Provisional IRA, likening them to Michael Collins and Eamonn De Valera, men who many republicans believed betrayed their cause when forming the Irish Free State almost 80 years earlier.

In 1986, when Republican Sinn Fein had been formed, the nascent organization had been characterized by its relative weakness: a group with high ambitions of revolutionary insurrection, but without the power base or means to carry out such aims. Now, to the alarm of British intelligence, it was a group of senior IRA men of similarly benign ambitions, but with the know-how, weaponry, and seemingly, the manpower to perpetrate savage attacks.

In addition to the former members of the IRA executive, there was a former IRA Quartermaster—which indicated they probably had access to weapons—and the apparent backing of dissident members of the Provisional IRA's South Armagh Brigade, formerly its most important rural stronghold. It also had the backing of Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, sister of the late IRA terrorist and hunger striker, Bobby Sands, an iconic figure, deified in the eyes of the republican movement. His sister was a high-profile and vociferous addition to the ranks of this breakaway group.

Bombings on the towns of Moira and Portadown in early 1998 showed the Real IRA's deadly potential and the apparent use of splinter cells to carry out attacks, independent of a conventional command structure.

The Real IRA's early attacks had been relatively minor but, on August 1, 1998, a huge 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 had not provided sufficient time to prevent injuries to more than thirty people or to prevent millions worth of damage.

In many ways, this attack was the Real IRA's first major attack, and loss of life was only narrowly averted. Two weeks later, however, on August 15, 1998, the Real IRA would carry out a bombing that would secure their notoriety. In an almost identical attack, 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 another 200.


IRA ceasefire prompts outrage in sections of the republican movement, leading to the formation of a splinter group, the Real IRA.
Good Friday Agreement.
Attack on Banbridge.
Omagh mombing kills twenty-nine people in the worst act of violence in Northern Ireland's history.
Real IRA attack on MI6 headquarters.
Call by imprisoned Real IRA leaders for disbandment.
Irish Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, claims that the Real IRA are down to just 150 members.

The bombing was the worst act of terrorism in the province's deeply troubled history and prompted outrage in Britain, Ireland, and across the world. For the Real IRA, it was the cause of intense political embarrassment and served to almost entirely marginalize them. This was heightened by a flood of arrests by British and Irish police in the huge operation that followed the bombing.

Despite the Real IRA subsequently announcing a ceasefire, in September 2000 a missile attack on MI6's headquarters in Vauxhall, London, ended the apparent cessation in hostilities. Attacks on the BBC, Ealing Broadway tube station, and an attempt to blow up Hammersmith Bridge in West London followed over the subsequent year, but these bombings were relatively low-tech, and disruptions and injuries minimal.

In fact, not until August 2002 would the Real IRA again claim a life, when a booby trap at a Territorial Army (British Army Reserves) base in County Londonderry killed a maintenance worker. The relatively minor nature of all these attacks hinted at the growing military weakness of the Real IRA after all the arrests and political marginalization following the Omagh outrage.

This sense grew further in autumn of 2002, when a message from Real IRA inmates at 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.

More recently, the role of the Real IRA has been limited to punishment beatings and fire bombings, although its name is often linked to bank robberies and extortion, which suggest it may be raising funds for another offensive. Nevertheless in 2005, the Irish Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, told the Dail that the organization was down to a maximum of just 150 members.


Like their precursors, the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA's mantra centers on the "old school" brand of Irish nationalism based on an unyielding belief in the creation of a thirty-two-county united Ireland on the back of an armed struggle. While its refusal to negotiate with either British or Irish governments—which they regard as illegitimate—give it a unique complexion, they also make the Real IRA a marginal force in a country no longer in the thrall of revolutionary foment. Maybe its ambitions were feasible in a different era, but with mainstream republicans engaged in Northern Ireland's intermittently successful power-sharing process, the violence propagated by the Real IRA in pursuit of its aims seems outmoded and deeply unsavory in the minds of most Irish people.



Michael McKevitt was the Provisional IRA's dissident Quartermaster who left the organization in 1997 in protest at Sinn Fein's entry into peace talks. With several former members of the Provisional IRA Council, McKevitt formed the Real IRA. He was number one in a chain of command that placed his wife, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, sister of the hunger striker, Bobby Sands, at number three.

McKevitt was already a hardened and deeply experienced terrorist when he helped form the Real IRA. His previous role with the Provisional IRA gave him the knowledge to acquire arms, and the involvement of a number of similarly experienced men made his organization uniquely dangerous.

Following the Omagh bombing, it was widely assumed that McKevitt had been behind the attack and he was forced to flee his home. Nevertheless, the police case against him was slow and it took until 2003 for McKevitt to be tried.

The case against him was based largely on the testimony of an undercover FBI and MI5 agent, David Rupert, who McKevitt had made head of the Real IRA's U.S. operations, after Rupert had infiltrated the organization. During the trial, it came out that McKevitt had hatched plans to assassinate British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Just days before the trial's conclusion, he issued a death threat to the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams.

McKevitt was found guilty of "direction of terrorism" and "membership of an illegal organization" and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment.

Like the Provisional IRA a generation earlier, the Real IRA's violent tactics center primarily on disrupting Northern Ireland's economic infrastructure by the detonation of bombs in town centers. It has also targeted Northern Ireland's security forces and their bases. On mainland Britain, where they have also set out to disrupt economic targets, their attacks hold a dual purpose, namely to diminish the British will to hold onto Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the Real IRA's weakness has seen it make more symbolic attacks or choose easier targets, away from the comparatively well-guarded area of central London, such as Hammersmith Bridge and Ealing Broadway tube station, both in the west London suburbs, than carry out the sort of atrocities that would genuinely shake their victims.



RIRA was formed in the late 1990s as the clandestine armed wing of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement, a "political pressure group" dedicated to removing British forces from Northern Ireland and unifying Ireland. The RIRA also seeks to disrupt the Northern Ireland peace process. The 32-County Sovereignty Movement opposed Sinn Fein's adoption in September 1997 of the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence; it also opposed the amendment in December 1999 of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which had claimed the territory of Northern Ireland. Despite internal rifts and calls by some jailed members—including the group's founder Michael "Mickey" McKevitt—for a ceasefire and disbandment, RIRA has pledged additional violence and continues to conduct attacks.


Bombings, assassinations, and robberies. Many Real IRA members are former Provisional Irish Republican Army members who left that organization after the Provisional IRA renewed its cease-fire in 1997. These members brought a wealth of experience in terrorist tactics and bomb making to RIRA. Targets have included civilians (most notoriously in the Omagh bombing in August 1998), British security forces, police in Northern Ireland, and local Protestant communities. RIRA's most recent fatal attack was in August 2002 at a London army base that killed a construction worker. In 2004, RIRA conducted several postal bomb attacks and made threats against prison officers, people involved in the new policing arrangements, and senior politicians. RIRA also planted incendiary devices in Belfast shopping areas and conducted a serious shooting attack against a Police Service of Northern Ireland station in September. The organization reportedly wants to improve its intelligence-gathering ability, engineering capacity, and access to weaponry; it also trains members in the use of guns and explosives. RIRA continues to attract new members, and its senior members are committed to launching attacks on security forces. Arrests in the spring led to the discovery of incendiary and explosive devices at a RIRA bomb making facility in Limerick. The group also engaged in smuggling and other non-terrorist crime in Ireland.


The number of activists may have fallen to less than 100. The organization may receive limited support from IRA hardliners and Republican sympathizers dissatisfied with the IRA's continuing cease-fire and Sinn Fein's involvement in the peace process. Approximately forty RIRA members are in Irish jails.


Northern Ireland, Great Britain, and Irish Republic.


Suspected of receiving funds from sympathizers in the United States and of attempting to buy weapons from US gun dealers. RIRA also is reported to have purchased sophisticated weapons from the Balkans, and to have taken materials from Provisional IRA arms dumps in the later 1990s.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

As with the IRA, its funding has come largely from sympathetic Irish Americans and from bank robberies. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of State's classification of the Real IRA as a terrorist organization has stymied the flow from the former in recent years.


"It's certain that the bombers did not intend to murder the twenty-nine people who were killed," wrote the BBC's Northern Ireland correspondent, Dennis Murray, in a deeply personal and at times angry essay on the Omagh bombing. "What they intended was that members of the security forces would die. The intention of the bombers was that people would die. To them, non-people. Human beings who were in the uniform of what they call 'Crown Forces'. Murder, plain and simple, murder. A plan that people, those in uniform, would die. And in the name of what? In the name of a crusade—a jihad—a holy war, to unite Ireland. To unite Ireland? Yes, to unite Ireland." Murray went on to say that the bombers achieved only one thing: "uniting all of the people of Ireland in disgust—at their out-of-the-past, unthinking stupidity."

"RIRA members follow an extreme, fundamentalist Republican ideology," wrote the intelligence expert Sean Boyne in Jane's Intelligence Review shortly after the Omagh atrocity in 1998. "They claim their historical mandate for violence goes back to the Declaration of Independence of the 1919 Dail. This alleged mandate from a long-dead electorate conveniently allows them to ignore the clear wishes for peace of the vast majority of living Irish people—north and south—as expressed through parliamentary elections and referendums.

"The RIRA is essentially a tiny fringe group, with no electoral mandate or popular support. It is not amenable to public opinion. Nevertheless, it would prefer to have public sympathy in the areas where it operates." Boyne believed even then that the Real IRA faced an uncertain future in light of the expected security clampdown. Nevertheless, he warned, "despite all this pressure, one can expect certain RIRA diehards to blithely ignore the clamour for peace and to cling to the policy of the bomb and the bullet."


The Omagh bombing of August 1998 seemed to represent the sum of many people's fears about the Northern Irish peace process; yet rather than serving as the inspiration for further acts of terror, it attracted widespread revulsion and served as the prompt for extraordinary efforts by British and Irish security forces to infiltrate dissident republican groups. Moreover, the successful referendum on the Good Friday Agreement gave Northern Ireland's republican population a clear reminder of what they had overwhelmingly chosen: namely, a modern brand of republicanism that sought solutions by due political process.

By 2001, when its last attack was carried out in mainland Britain, the Real IRA was in disarray, beset by arrests and infiltration. When calls for its disbandment were made by senior members a year later, it surprised few people. Since then, the Real IRA has remained on the fringes, stymied but unbroken, a reminder of the extremes that still bubble under the surface of Irish politics.



McKittrick, David, and David McVeigh. Making Sense of the Troubles. London: Penguin, 2003.

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

Web sites

Jane's Intelligence Review. "The Real IRA: After Omagh, What Now?" 〈〉 (accessing October 14, 2005).

BBC News. "The Omagh Bomb." 〈〉 (accessed October 14, 2005).


Continuity Irish Republican Army

Provisional Irish Republican Army

Irish Republican Army