By Jack Holland and Patrick Markey
The Irish government is resisting British government pressure to ask the U.S. State Department to list the Real IRA as an illegal international terrorist organization, according to high-ranking sources in Belfast.
The allegations emerged as the Irish government came under criticism for its handling of the inquiry into the Omagh bombing that led to the deaths of 29 people in August 1998. The Real IRA called a cessation to its operations after claiming responsibility for the massacre.
The sources say that London is "pressing the Irish to do a joint approach but that the Irish have been resisting." Dublin does not want to make martyrs of the Real IRA or do anything that would give them undue significance, the sources said.
However, the British has been anxious to put as much pressure as possible on RIRA support in the U.S.
Last Sunday, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson said dissident republicans pose a potentially lethal threat.
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"Regarding their fund-raising in the U.S., I want to see people of all political persuasions turn their backs on them, keep their hands firmly in their pockets. We will be looking to the American administration to see what action can be taken legally to discourage that fund-raising," the secretary of state said.
"The U.S. administration should specify that splinter group [the Real IRA] as an illegal organization that shouldn’t be supported anywhere in the United States."
But the Irish government was quick to dismiss allegations that Dublin had tried to block any State Department move to outlaw the Real IRA under U.S. law.
"It is incorrect to say that the Irish government is opposed to the proposed measures. To say so is to pre-empt an ongoing discussion in which nothing is ruled out," an Irish Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said.
"The question of how to deal with dissident republican activity is kept under constant review by the British and Irish governments," the spokesman said.
The two governments are in discussion about additional measures to deal with these groups and Irish Minister of Justice John O’Donoghue will meet with Mandelson later this week to review security arrangements, the spokesman said.
The Real IRA has recently become increasingly active in Northern Ireland and England. The group is believed to be behind two recent bombing attacks on railroads outside Belfast, an attack on a London railroad and a rocket grenade attack on MI6 headquarters.
An official in the U.S. State Department would only acknowledge that the possibility of declaring the Real IRA an illegal terrorist group "has been discussed in the past." However, he said he was aware of "no plans to do so."
The official stressed that the inclusion on the State Department’s designated foreign terrorist list, which appears once every two years, but is constantly updated, requires a "long legal process and you must produce the necessary evidence that would stand up in court to justify the designation."
The Real IRA is already listed in a State Department report on Patterns in Global Terrorism. But inclusion in the list of designated foreign terrorist organizations would severly hamper fund-raising in the United States and expose supporters to harsh legal proceedings.
Much controversy surrounds the issue of how much support the RIRA commands in the United States.
The 1998 Good Friday agreement caused a deep split in the Irish American republican community. While many fund-raisers continued to support the Sinn Fein leadership and the move to shared government, some aligned themselves with the dissident 32 County Sovereignty Committee, which the State Department links to the Real IRA.
Irish government sources believe that the Real IRA U.S.-based support is small and isolated, and that including the group on the State Department’s designated terrorist list would only exaggerate the organization’s actual importance.
But the British government believes that putting the group on the list would discourage support.
Said a British source: "It is a fairly friendly dispute over a matter of tactics. Both governments are committed to tackling the Real IRA."
But word of the disagreement met with disapproval from the father of one of the bombing victims.
Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son, Adrian, was killed in the Omagh attack, said leaving the Real IRA off the State Department’s terrorist list would be difficult for families affected by the tragedy.
"I would find that very difficult. That would be very disturbing if that were the case. I have been calling for the last two and a half years for these people to lay down their arms," Gallagher said.
"It would be disturbing to think that the Irish government were going to give them credibility for want of a better word. I think it is very important that they are listed in the U.S."