The Real IRA (also known as the NIRA) was formed in late 1997 following a meeting of republicans in Gweedore, County Donegal. The 12-person army executive debated the peace strategy then being pursued by the provisional IRA (henceforth PIRA). The quartermaster general, vehemently opposed any compromise with the British and walked out of the meeting. He went on to become the head of the Real IRA.
As quartermaster of the PIRA, this dissident was responsible for the vast arsenal of weapons at the disposal of the IRA. He was also involved in the procurement of those weapons from Libya and Eastern Europe. It was feared by security forces that many of those weapons would end up in the hands of the new group. However, it seems only a small amount of the deadly explosive Semtex has fallen into their hands as it has only featured in the detonators of their bombs.
The aim of this new terrorist organisation is to continue the violent struggle against the British 'occupation' of Northern Ireland and so achieve a United Ireland. This is despite the fact that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to remain in the United Kingdom. They aim to destabilise the peace process that began in earnest with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1997.
Just as the PIRA is fronted by Sinn Fein, the Real IRA's political wing is the 32 County Sovereignty Committee (the number of counties in the whole of Ireland). Francie Mackay is the chairperson of that Committee. Bernadette Sands McKevitt, sister of the hunger strike martyr Bobby Sands, is vice-chairperson.
The Real IRA attained infamy when they bombed Omagh with the loss of twenty nine lives and over two hundred wounded. A wave of public anger and revulsion was directed against them and they announced a cessation of hostilities. This cessation has not been maintained though the organisation is thought to have dropped the tactic of town center bombings.
Instead they there have been several high profile attacks attributed to the Real IRA. The attempted bombing of Hammersmith Bridge, the daring rocket attack against the MI6 headquarters and the bombing of the entrance to the BBC in White City, London. They have also been involved in extortions and robberies.
The Real IRA has attempted to recruit as many members of the PIRA as possible. In the Irish Republic they have been successful in attracting dissident provos from west Limerick to Dundalk. Their main strength lies south of the border. There are at most two hundred members. They have attracted several skilled bombmakers. They have also attempted to attract university students. It is thought that sleeper cells await activation in Britain. Any attack would probably be timed with some key date in the peace process.
Irish police (Garda) have had some success in infiltrating the organisation. On May 16, 2001 the Real IRA was designated as a 'foreign terrorist' group by the Bush administration in the United States. This should reduce a major source of funding for the republicans (mainly from Irish Americans in New York, Boston or Chicago).
At the time of writing, Michael McKevitt awaits trial in the Republic of Ireland on charges under the Offences against the State Act. It is alleged that he is the leader of the Real IRA. It is to be hoped that continued vigilance on the part of the authorities (both Irish and British) will severely hamper the activities of this extremist group.
Writs have been served on two of those suspected of having some part in the Omagh bombing. Another three writs are expected to be served today on men already imprisoned in the Republic of Ireland for other unconnected offenses. This is the beginning of an expensive civil action, the only recourse to relatives since criminal charges were never brought (accepting one conviction in the Republic).
The Real IRA have apparently decided to call it a day. They have declared their organisation to be at an end. Most of the key leaders are locked up and their leader is on trial. This may be a cynical tactic to win early release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
Michael McKevitt is convicted of directing terrorism and membership of a terrorist organisation in an Irish court. He is the first person in the Irish Republic to be convicted of directing terrorism. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for the first offence and six years for the latter. The sentences are to run concurrently.