`Real IRA' strong enough to move into south Armagh

 

A former Provisional IRA member from Drumintee, south Armagh, a man in his late 30s with a suspected long history of bomb-making and attacks on the security forces but with no serious convictions, is now suspected of having played a key role in the Omagh attack.

He is close to a Dundalk man, in his late 40s and also with a long history of Provisional IRA activity but no serious convictions, who broke from the Provisional IRA last year and embarked on a recruitment tour of disaffected Provisionals in the Republic and south Armagh. This drive created the group known as the `Real IRA' which has, as its political wing, the ginger group known as the 32-County Sovereignty Movement.

The south Armagh man came to Garda attention early this year when he was suspected of having organised two bomb attacks on town centres in the North with equipment and explosives supplied by the Dundalk man, a former senior Provisional IRA figure who had responsibility for supplying bomb-making equipment to the Northern "brigades".

After the `Real IRA' bombed the centres of Moira and Portadown in February - both attacks taking place at night when there was little chance of serious civilian injuries - the Garda stepped up its operations against the group. Two bombs were intercepted in March. Altogether, the Garda prevented 1,800lb of explosive from being set off in Northern Ireland.

The `Real IRA' carried out a mortar attack on the Forkhill army/RUC base, south Armagh, on March 24th. The RUC seized a further 3,000lb of explosive in north Belfast on April 7th, and on April 30th a 600lb car bomb failed to explode in the centre of Lisburn, Co Antrim.

On April 2nd, the Garda stopped a 1,000lb bomb bound for Britain.

In May, a robbery was foiled by the Garda, and later that month a car bomb was stopped as it was being driven north to south Armagh.

Gardai now believe it was at this point that the group realised it could no longer operate safely in the Republic and decided to locate its bomb-making operations in south Armagh.

Two things made this arrangement possible. By May, the group is believed to have attracted sufficient support in south Armagh - formerly the Provisional IRA's most important rural stronghold - to be confident enough to base its operations there without any interference from those republicans who remained loyal to the Adams/McGuinness leadership.

The `Real IRA' became, de facto, the strongest republican paramilitary group in this fastness of physical-force republicanism.

The group had also attracted support from the two other splinter republican groups opposed to the Belfast Agreement. Members of these groups - the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and Continuity IRA (which was the paramilitary wing of the small political group, Republican Sinn Fein) - vowed support for the `Real IRA'.

INLA figures based in Dundalk and south Armagh, a group adept at robberies and armed hijackings, were able to supply expertise in stealing cars and delivering car bombs to targets. As the INLA in Belfast, Derry and Dublin (comprising only a couple of dozen members) moved towards the ceasefire expected to be announced at midnight tonight, the Dundalk INLA has been moving in the opposite direction.

The former local INLA leader, a Belfast man who has been living in the town for many years, is said to have been usurped by a south Derry man, also settled in the town, who is a former associate of the notorious former INLA leader, Dominic McGlinchey.

The main Continuity IRA figure in north Louth, a man in his 40s who comes from a farming background on the Louth/Monaghan Border area, is believed to have joined the `Real IRA', providing assistance in bombmaking and contacts with friendly farmers who could provide sheds and outbuildings for making and storing explosives. It is believed this man was the last significant terrorist figure associated with the Republican Sinn Fein's "military" wing and that the group known as the Continuity IRA is now defunct.

Gardai now believe the Dundalk `Real IRA' leader continued his recruitment drive during the spring and summer with great success. It is now suspected most of the key figures in the Provisional IRA's southern command have joined it.

According to senior Garda sources, the only areas which have remained loyal to the Adams/ McGuinness leadership in the Republic are Co Kerry, where there is still strong support for the local Sinn Fein figure, Mr Martin Ferris; Co Donegal, where the Sinn Fein vice-president, Mr Pat Doherty, also has strong local support; and Co Monaghan, where the Sinn Fein TD, Mr Caoimhghin O Caolain, also has a good support base.

The Provisional republican movement in the rest of the Republic is said to have gone over entirely to the `Real IRA'. As one senior Garda officer observed: "There is no longer a Provisional southern command."

This means the `Real IRA' has control of the areas where the Provisionals traditionally stored their guns and explosives - mainly in north Cork, Limerick and Tipperary and the midlands, where it had manufactured bombs and mortars.

Dublin and the south-east, important support bases for the Provisional IRA from where attacks into England could be launched and with ports where weapons could be imported, also went over to the `Real IRA'.

Some people in the Meath/Louth/Cavan area, where weapons and explosives were stored temporarily before being moved into the "war zone" of Northern Ireland, are strongly supportive of the `Real IRA'. This was the area most under the influence of the Dundalk `Real IRA' leader.

The group is also believed to be strongly influenced by a woman living in a Border area and who is said to hold more extreme views than many of her male associates.

By the start of the summer, the `Real IRA' had grown to proportions which were beginning to alarm the Garda. Reports to Government indicated the need for strong action.

On June 22nd, the `Real IRA' proclaimed its sense of establishment in south Armagh by setting off a huge landmine on the Newry-Forkhill road, near Drumintee, blowing a huge crater in the road.

This bomb was a warning to the RUC and British army, who had begun using land transport again in south Armagh since the Provisional IRA ceasefire. It was the same tactic used by the Provisionals, who had kept the security forces off the roads in south Armagh by planting dozens of huge landmines. The bomb forced the army and RUC to use helicopters as the only means of transport in the area. It also made proper policing and detection almost impossible.

The Drumintee landmine explosion marked both the arrival of the `Real IRA' as the new IRA and, effectively, forced the security forces out of south Armagh again.

It was followed two days later by the carbomb attack on the village of Newtownhamilton, like Omagh a religiously mixed town. There was an inadequate warning and six people were injured as the RUC tried to clear the area.

This attack was admitted by the INLA which, it is believed, provided the car used to carry the bomb. The INLA may also have delivered the bomb to its target, but the bomb was certainly constructed by the `Real IRA' bomb-makers, now believed to be firmly established in south Armagh.

On July 2nd the group blew up the Dublin-Belfast railway line at Carnagat, outside Newry.

The next attack, one which attracted almost no public attention but which set alarm bells ringing in both RUC and Garda headquarters, involved a plan to set off a 1,400 lb bomb in the centre of either Portadown or Armagh city at the height of the Drumcree crisis. The bombers were foiled by the intense levels of military and RUC activity on roads in the north Armagh area and the bomb was abandoned near the village of Moy.

Had it gone off in a Protestant town like Portadown and caused injuries like those in Omagh at the height of the Drumcree standoff, the North could have been pitched into a major crisis.

Two days later there was another failed attempt to bomb the newly rebuilt courthouse in Newry. There was another failed mortar attack in Newry which also posed a major threat to civilians on July 23rd.

The harbinger to Omagh was in Banbridge on the afternoon of Saturday, August 1st, when a similarly-sized car bomb exploded in the main shopping area. The warning was entirely inadequate and the RUC was barely able to clear the area. Some 33 people and two RUC officers were injured. Had the RUC in Banbridge been less lucky it could also have suffered awful civilian losses.

The Omagh attack started on the evening of Thursday, August 13th, when a maroon Vauxhall Cavalier was stolen - probably by one of the INLA gang from Dundalk - from outside a house in Carrickmacross. It is not known where the car went then but it is only 10 miles to the part of south Armagh where the `Real IRA' is believed to have its bomb-making base.

The car was almost certainly fitted with commercial lorry shock absorbers to disguise the fact it was carrying the 500 lb bomb. The light engineering for this type of work is known to be usually done in south Armagh. The car could then have been driven back over the Border, then west through Co Monaghan, into Co Tyrone and up to Omagh.

It was delivered to its target between 2 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. on Saturday. The timer was activated by one of two men seen later walking away from the car. A growing crowd of people was moved down Market Street, away from the courthouse where it was warned the bomb had been left. The two men appear to have been unconcerned at the immediate and huge threat to civilian life. Neither, apparently, made any attempt to telephone a further warning.

The warning, in fact, came from a telephone kiosk 45 miles away at Forkhill, south Armagh, close to the `Real IRA"s new centre of operations. The bomb, which would have contained a Semtex charge surrounded by bags of sugar and sodium-nitrate mixture, exploded at 3.10 p.m. in the middle of the crowd.

The group's claim that it had not intended to kill civilians is erroneous. After examining the bombers' plan for several days, security figures believe the bombers had actually hoped that the bomb would go off at a likely point where the RUC, sealing off a wide area around the courthouse, would set up a cordon. The end of Market Street, where the bomb exploded, is a logical place to set up a cordon. It seems the `Real IRA' intention was to set off a bomb there killing both RUC and civilians.

The actual losses and the angry public response forced the group - which still has no adequate spokesmen or women - into retreat. Fear of having its members seized in large numbers probably prompted Wednesday's announcement that it was ceasing "military action". It was almost certainly aware that a raft of new laws and legal measures would be enacted against it in the Republic and Northern Ireland.

There has been no evidence of any sanction against what is, effectively, the new Provisional IRA by the leadership of the old Provisional IRA. Asked if the Provisionals would move against the `Real IRA', a senior Garda source said the concern would be that the opposite was the case and the Provisional leaders believe themselves to be under threat from the new group.

According to Garda sources, there have been indications over the summer that the Provisionals have, more or less, retreated from the Republic, apart from the areas where they still have electoral and popular support. In the process, they are believed to have unearthed large numbers of the guns they had stored in the Republic and moved these into new hides inside parts of Northern Ireland where they have strong loyalty.

There is a suspicion that the Provisionals were doing this both to deny the weapons to the `Real IRA' and to ensure they had weapons available in the event of a feud with the new group.

In fact, the organisation which carried out the Omagh bombing came about because the Provisional IRA was unable to handle the dismantling of its own terrorist operations.

This time last year the `Real IRA' was a tiny, ill-equipped and isolated splinter group opposed to the calling of a second - and probably final - Provisional IRA ceasefire. It was known it had access to and was using Provisional IRA bomb equipment, including Semtex, detonators and timing switches, but at no point did the Provisionals move against it.

Instead, the group was allowed to grow and the Provisionals retreated to their areas of strongest support from which the massively outnumbered dissidents could be intimidated and ejected.

The Provisionals have now managed their move away from war to politics, and left the way open for the dissidents to organise and fill the vacuum left in the Republic and south Armagh. These dissidents were allowed to grow and arm themselves from the abandoned arsenal. Rather than decommission their explosives supplies, the Provisionals have allowed these weapons to fall into the hands of the `Real IRA', which, almost predictably, used them to make the bomb that went to Market Street in Omagh.