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Real Irish Republican Army
(Óglaigh na hÉireann)

Northern Ireland shown in red
Formation November 1997
Type Paramilitary
Leaders Army Council
Key people Michael McKevitt

The Real Irish Republican Army, otherwise known as the Real IRA (RIRA) and styling itself as Óglaigh na hÉireann (Volunteers of Ireland), is a paramilitary organisation which aims to bring about a united Ireland. The RIRA was formed in 1997 following a split in the Provisional IRA. It is an illegal organisation in the Republic of Ireland and designated as a terrorist organisation in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The organisation has been responsible for a number of bombings in Northern Ireland and England, including the 15 August 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people. On 7 March 2009 RIRA members claimed responsibility for an attack on the Massereene Barracks that killed two British soldiers, the first to be killed in Northern Ireland since 1997.



On 10 October 1997 a Provisional IRA General Army Convention was held in Falcarragh, County Donegal. At the convention Provisional IRA Quartermaster General Michael McKevitt, also a member of the 12-person Provisional IRA Executive, denounced the leadership and called for an end to the group's ceasefire and participation in the Northern Ireland peace process. He was backed by his common-law wife and fellow Executive member Bernadette Sands-McKevitt. The pair were outmanoeuvred by the leadership, and a key ally, Kevin McKenna, was voted off the Army Council leaving the pair isolated.[1][2] The convention backed the orthodox pro-ceasefire line, and on 26 October McKevitt and Sands-McKevitt resigned from the Executive along with several other members.[3]

In November 1997 McKevitt and other dissidents held a meeting in a farmhouse in Oldcastle, County Meath, and a new organisation styling itself Óglaigh na hÉireann was formed.[4] The organisation attracted disaffected Provisional IRA members from the republican stronghold of South Armagh, as well as other areas including Dublin, Belfast, Limerick, Tipperary, County Louth, County Tyrone and County Monaghan.[5][6]


The RIRA's ultimate objective is a united Ireland by forcing British withdrawal from Northern Ireland through the use of physical force. The organisation rejects the Mitchell Principles and the Belfast Agreement, comparing the latter to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty which resulted in the partition of Ireland.[7] The organisation aims to uphold an uncompromising form of Irish republicanism and opposes any political settlement that falls short of Irish unity and independence.

Sands-McKevitt, sister of hunger striker Bobby Sands and a founder of the RIRA's political wing, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, said in an interview that "Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state".[8] The RIRA adopts similar tactics to those used by the Provisional IRA in the 1990s, primarily using bombs in town centres to damage the economic infrastructure of Northern Ireland. The organisation also attempts to kill members of the security forces using land mines, home-made mortars and car bombs, and targets England using incendiary and car bombs to spread terror and disruption.[5]



Early campaign

The organisation's first action was an attempted bombing in Banbridge, County Down on 7 January 1998. The plot involved a 300 lb car bomb, but it was thwarted after being defused by security forces.[9][10] The organisation continued its campaign in late February, with bombings in Moira, County Down and Portadown, County Armagh.[11][12][13] On 9 May the organisation formally announced its existence in a coded telephone call to Belfast media claiming responsibility for a mortar attack on a police station in Belleek, County Fermanagh.[14]

The name "Real IRA" entered common usage when members staged an illegal roadblock in Jonesborough, County Armagh and told motorists "We're from the IRA. The Real IRA".[1] The organisation also carried out attacks in Newtownhamilton and Newry,[15] and a second attack in Banbridge on 1 August injured 35 people and caused £3.5 million of damage when a 500 lb car bomb exploded.[16][17] Despite these attacks the RIRA lacked a significant base and was heavily infiltrated by informers. This led to a series of high profile arrests and seizures by the Garda Síochána in the first half of 1998, including the death of member Rónán Mac Lochlainn who was shot dead trying to escape from police following an attempted robbery of a security van in County Wicklow.[18][19]

Omagh bombing

On 15 August 1998 the RIRA left a car containing 500 lb of home-made explosives in the centre of Omagh, County Tyrone. The bombers could not find a parking space near the intended target of the courthouse, and the car was left 400 metres away.[20][21] As a result three inaccurate telephone warnings were issued, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) believed the bomb was actually located outside the courthouse.[20] They attempted to establish a security cordon to keep civilians clear of the area, which inadvertently pushed people closer to the actual location of the bomb.[20] Shortly after, the bomb exploded killing 29 people and injuring 220 others, in what became the single deadliest strike of the Troubles.[21]

The bombing caused a major outcry throughout the world, and the Irish and British governments introduced new anti-terror legislation in an attempt to destroy the organisation.[22][23] The RIRA also came under pressure from the Provisional IRA, when Provisional IRA members visited the homes of 60 people connected with the RIRA and ordered them to disband and stop interfering with Provisional IRA arms dumps.[24] With the organisation under intense pressure, which included McKevitt and Sands-McKevitt being forced from their home after the media named McKevitt in connection with the bombing, the RIRA called a ceasefire on 8 September.[25][26]


Following the declaration of the ceasefire the RIRA began to regroup, and by the end of October had elected a new leadership and were planning their future direction.[27] In late December Irish government representative Martin Mansergh held a meeting with McKevitt in Dundalk, in an attempt to convince McKevitt to disband the RIRA. McKevitt refused, stating that members would be left defenceless to attacks by the Provisional IRA.[27] In 1999 the RIRA began preparations for a renewed campaign, and in May three members travelled across Europe to Split in Croatia to purchase arms which were subsequently smuggled back to Ireland.[28] On 20 October ten people were arrested when Gardaí raided a RIRA training camp near Stamullen, County Meath.[29] Officers found a firing range inside a disused wine cellar being used as an underground bunker, and seized weapons including an assault rifle, a submachine gun, a semi-automatic pistol and an RPG-18 rocket launcher.[30] An earlier version of the rocket launcher, the RPG-7, had been in the possession of the Provisional IRA from as early as 1972, but this was the first time the RPG-18 had been found in the possession of a paramilitary organisation in Ireland.[31][32]

Return to activity

On 20 January 2000 the RIRA issued a call-to-arms in a statement to the Irish News. The statement condemned the Northern Ireland Executive, and stated "Once again, Óglaigh na hÉireann declares the right of the Irish people to the ownership of Ireland. We call on all volunteers loyal to the Irish Republic to unite to uphold the Republic and establish a permanent national parliament representative of all the people".[33][34] The RIRA launched its new campaign on 25 February with an attempted bombing of Shackleton Army Barracks in Ballykelly. The bombers were disturbed as they were assembling the device, which would have caused mass murder if detonated, according to soldiers.[35][36] On 29 February a rocket launcher similar to one seized in the 1999 raid was found near an army base in Dungannon, County Tyrone,[37] and on 15 March three men were arrested following the discovery of 500 lb of home-made explosives when the RUC searched two cars in Hillsborough, County Down.[38] On 6 April a bomb attack took place at Ebrington Army Barracks in Derry. RIRA members lowered a device consisting of 5 lb of home made explosives over the perimeter fence using ropes, and the bomb subsequently exploded damaging the fence and an unmanned guardhouse.[39][40]

Bombings in England

The damage caused by the 3 August 2001 Ealing bombing

After the Omagh bombing, the RIRA leadership were unwilling to launch a full-scale campaign in Northern Ireland due to the possibility of civilians being killed.[41] Instead they decided to launch a series of attacks in England, in particular London, which they hoped would attract disenchanted Provisional IRA members to join the RIRA.[41] On 1 June 2000 a bomb damaged Hammersmith Bridge; a symbolic target for Irish republican paramilitary groups.[42][43] The bridge had previously been targeted by the Irish Republican Army on 29 March 1939 as part of its Sabotage Campaign, and by the Provisional IRA on 24 April 1996.[44] One month later on 19 July, security forces carried out a controlled explosion on a bomb left at Ealing Broadway station and public transport was disrupted when the Metropolitan Police closed Victoria and Paddington train stations and halted services on the London Underground.[45] On 21 September a rocket propelled grenade was fired at the MI6 headquarters using an RPG-22 rocket launcher,[46][47] which generated headlines around the world.[48] On 21 February 2001 a bomb disguised as a torch left outside a Territorial Army base in Shepherd's Bush seriously injured a 14-year-old cadet, who was blinded and had his hand blown off.[49][50] A second attack in Shepherd's Bush, the 4 March BBC bombing, injured a civilian outside the BBC Television Centre.[51] The explosion was captured by a BBC cameraman, and the footage was broadcast on TV stations worldwide, and gained mass publicity for the group.[52] On 14 April a bomb exploded at a postal sorting office in Hendon, causing minor damage but no injuries.[53] Three weeks later on 6 May a second bomb exploded at the same building, causing slight injuries to a passer-by.[54] The 3 August Ealing bombing injured seven people, and on 3 November a car bomb containing 60 lb of home-made explosives was planted in the centre of Birmingham. The bomb did not fully detonate and no one was injured.[55]

Renewed campaign in Northern Ireland

The damage caused by the 30 June bomb

The successful attack on Hammersmith Bridge encouraged the RIRA leadership to launch further attacks in Northern Ireland.[56] On 19 June 2000 a bomb was found in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle, home of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson.[56][57] On 30 June a bomb exploded on the Dublin to Belfast railway line near the village of Meigh in County Armagh. The explosion damaged the tracks, and caused disruption to train services.[58] On 9 July a car bomb damaged buildings in Stewartstown, County Tyrone including an RUC station,[59][60] and on 10 August an attack in Derry was thwarted by the RUC after a van containing a 500 lb bomb failed to stop at a police checkpoint. Following a car chase the bombers escaped across the Irish border, and the Irish Army carried out a controlled explosion on the bomb after the van was found abandoned in County Donegal.[61][62] On 13 September two 80 lb bombs were planted at the Magilligan army camp in County Londonderry, one of which was planted in a wooden hut and partially exploded when a soldier opened the door to the hut.[62] The second bomb was found during a follow-up search and made safe by bomb disposal experts.[63] On 11 November the RUC and British Army prevented a mortar attack after stopping a van near Derrylin, County Fermanagh,[64] and the RUC prevented a further attack on 13 January 2001 when an 1100 lb bomb was found in Armagh — the largest bomb found in several years according to the RUC.[65][66]

On 23 January the RIRA attacked Ebrington Army Barracks in Derry for a second time, firing a mortar over a perimeter fence.[67][68] A mortar similar to the one used in the attack was found by Gardaí near Newtowncunningham on 13 February, and British army bomb disposal experts made safe another mortar found between Dungannon and Carrickmore on 12 April.[68][69] On 1 August a 40 lb bomb was discovered in a car at the long stay car park of Belfast International Airport following a telephone warning, and was made safe with two controlled explosions by bomb disposal experts.[70] In December a six day security operation ended when a 70 lb bomb found under railway tracks at Killeen Bridge near Newry was successfully defused. The operation began following a number of telephone warnings, and both the road and railway line connecting Newry to Dundalk were closed due to security alerts.[71] A pipe bomb was discovered at a police officer's home in Annalong, County Down on 3 January 2002,[72] and two teenage boys were injured in County Armagh on 2 March when a bomb hidden in a traffic cone exploded.[73] On 29 March 2002 the RIRA targeted a former member of the Royal Irish Regiment from Sion Mills, County Tyrone, with a bomb attached to his car that failed to explode.[74] On 1 August a civilian worker was killed by an explosion at a Territorial Army base in Derry. The man, a 51-year-old former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, was the thirtieth person killed by the RIRA.[75]


Despite the RIRA's renewed activity, the organisation became increasingly weaker due to the arrest of key members and continued infiltration by informers. McKevitt was arrested on 29 March 2001 and charged with membership of an illegal organisation and directing terrorism, and remanded into custody.[76] In July 2001, following the arrests of McKevitt and other RIRA members, British and Irish government sources hinted that the organisation was now in disarray.[77] Other key figures were jailed, including the RIRA's Director of Operations, Liam Campbell, who was convicted of membership of an illegal organisation,[78] and Colm Murphy who was convicted of conspiring to cause the Omagh bombing,[79] although this conviction was later overturned on appeal.[80]

On 10 April 2002, Ruairi Convey, from Donaghmede, Dublin was jailed for three years for membership of the RIRA. During a search of his home a list of names and home addresses of members of the Gardaí's Emergency Response Unit was found.[81] Five RIRA members were also convicted in connection with the 2001 bombing campaign in England, and received sentences varying from 16 years to 22 years imprisonment.[82] In October 2002, McKevitt and other RIRA members imprisoned in Portlaoise Prison issued a statement calling for the organisation to stand down.[83][84] After a two-month trial, McKevitt was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment in August 2003 after being convicted of directing terrorism.[85]

Subsequent activities

Since McKevitt's imprisonment, the RIRA has regrouped and continues to be active in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The RIRA claimed responsibility for a series of firebomb attacks against premises in Belfast in November 2004,[86] and an attack on a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) patrol in Ballymena during March 2006 was attributed to the RIRA by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC).[87] On 9 August 2006 a number of fire bomb attacks by the RIRA hit businesses in Newry, County Down. Buildings belonging to JJB Sports and Carpetright were destroyed, and ones belonging to MFI and TK Maxx were badly damaged.[88] On 27 October 2006, a large amount of explosives were found in Kilbranish, Mount Leinster, County Carlow by police, who believe the RIRA were trying to derail the peace process with a bomb attack.[89] The IMC believe the RIRA was also responsible for a failed mortar attack on Craigavon PSNI Station on 4 December 2006.[90][91] The IMC's October 2006 report stated that the RIRA remains "active and dangerous" and that it seeks to "sustain its position as a terrorist organisation".[87] The RIRA has previously stated it has no intention of calling a ceasefire unless a declaration of intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland is made by the British Government.[7]

On 8 November 2007 two RIRA members shot an off-duty PSNI officer as he sat in his car on Bishop Street in Derry, causing injuries to his face and arm.[92] On 12 November another PSNI member was shot by RIRA members in Dungannon, County Tyrone.[92][93] On 7 February 2008, the RIRA stated that, after experiencing a three-year period of reorganisation, it intends to "go back to war" by launching a new offensive against "legitimate targets".[94] It also, despite having initially apologised for the Omagh bombing,[95] denied any large scale involvement with the attack and said that their part had only gone as far as their codeword being used.[94] On 12 May 2008 the RIRA seriously injured a member of the PSNI when a booby trap bomb exploded underneath his car near Spamount, County Tyrone.[96][97] On 25 September 2008 the RIRA shot a man in the neck in St Johnston, near the Derry border.[98] The same man was targeted in a pipe bomb attack on his home on 25 October, the RIRA did not claim responsibility for the attack, but security forces believe they were responsible for it.[98]

On 7 March 2009, the RIRA claimed responsibility for the 2009 Massereene Barracks shooting.[99] This shooting occurred outside the Massereene Barracks as four soldiers were receiving a pizza delivery from two deliverymen. Two soldiers were killed, and the other two soldiers and two deliverymen were injured.[100] On 3 April 2009 the RIRA in Derry claimed responsibility for carrying out a punishment shooting against a convicted rapist who was awaiting sentencing for raping a 15 year old girl.[101] The RIRA was also blamed for orchestrating rioting in the Ardoyne area of Belfast on 13 July 2009 as an Apprentice Boys parade was passing. A number of PSNI officers were injured in the rioting and at least one shot was fired at police.[102] In early November, the Independent Monitoring Commission released a report stating that the threat from the RIRA and other dissident republicans was at its most serious level since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.[103]

Structure and status

The RIRA has a similar command structure to the Provisional IRA, with a seven member Army Council consisting of a Chief of Staff, Quartermaster General, Director of Training, Director of Operations, Director of Finance, Director of Publicity and Adjutant General.[104] The rank-and-file members operate in active service units of covert cells in order to prevent the organisation from being compromised by informers. As of June 2005, the organisation is believed to have a maximum of about 150 members, according to a statement by the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell.[105]

The RIRA also has a political wing, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (formerly the 32 County Sovereignty Committee), led by Francis Mackey.[106] The RIRA is distinct from the Continuity IRA, another Provisional IRA splinter group founded in 1986, although the two groups have been known to co-operate at a local level.[107] The Provisional IRA have been hostile to the RIRA and issued threats to RIRA members, and in October 2000 was alleged to be responsible for the fatal shooting of Belfast RIRA member Joe O'Connor according to O'Connor's family and 32 County Sovereignty Movement member Marian Price.[108][109]

The RIRA is an illegal organisation under Irish and UK law (section 11(1) of the Terrorism Act 2000) because of the use of 'IRA' in the group's name.[110][111] Membership of the organisation is punishable by a sentence of up to ten years imprisonment under UK law.[112] In 2001 the United States government designated the RIRA as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This makes it illegal for Americans to provide material support to the RIRA, requires US financial institutions to freeze the group's assets and denies suspected RIRA members visas into America.[113]


The RIRA initially took small amounts of materiel from Provisional IRA arms dumps under the control of McKevitt and other former Provisional IRA members, including the plastic explosive Semtex, Uzi submachine guns, AK-47 assault rifles, handguns, detonators and timing devices.[5][31][114] The defection of senior Provisional IRA members also gave the RIRA the ability to manufacture home-made explosives and improvised mortars, including the Mark 15 mortar capable of firing a 200 lb shell.[5][115]

In 1999 the organisation supplemented its equipment by importing arms from Croatia, including military explosive TM500, CZ Model 25 submachine guns, modified AK-47 assault rifles with a folding stock, and RPG-18 and RPG-22 rocket launchers.[116] but a July 2000 attempt to smuggle a second consignment of arms was foiled by Croatian police, who seized seven RPG-18s, AK-47 assault rifles, detonators, ammunition and twenty packs of TM500.[32][47]

Again in 2001 RIRA members travelled to Slovakia to procure arms, and were caught in a sting operation by the British security agency MI5. The men attempted to purchase 5 tonnes of plastic explosives, 2,000 detonators, 500 handguns, 200 rocket-propelled-grenades, and also wire-guided missiles and sniper rifles, but were arrested and extradited to the UK and subsequently imprisoned for 30 years after pleading guilty to conspiring to cause explosions and other charges.[117]

In June 2006 the PSNI made a number of arrests, after the RIRA had attempted to procure arms from France including Semtex and C-4 plastic explosives, SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, AK-47s, rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, pistols with silencers, anti-tank weapons and detonators.[118][119]


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