By Jack Holland
Those monitoring the factionalizing within the republican movement were truly alarmed when it was discovered that certain leading members of the Provisional IRA had resigned and set up their own outfit late last year, one that was connected to the 32 County Sovereignty Committee.
The Northern Ireland police and the garda both were convinced that what became known as the "Real IRA" — or "True IRA" — represented a greater threat to the stability of the peace process than the other two republican organizations, the Continuity IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army, that were still on the warpath intent on disrupting the peace process.
The slaughter last Saturday in Omagh is all too convincing proof that their anxiety was not misplaced. There was evidence of the group’s involvement even before it claimed responsibility Tuesday morning. The car used, a Vauxhall Cavalier, was the same as that used two weeks earlier in a similar 500-pound bomb attack in Banbridge, which was claimed by the Real IRA. As well, it was hijacked near Carrickmacross, which is not far from Dundalk, the group’s headquarters. The code word used in the original (erroneous) warning, that a bomb had been placed outside Omagh Courthouse, had been used before by the Real IRA.
Police anxiety about the emergence of the Real IRA was based on firm intelligence and past experience of those who had formed it. The key figure, Mickey McKevitt, since the early 1990s had been identified as a Quartermaster General of the Provisional IRA — the man in charge of the organization’s still well-stocked weapons dumps. McKevitt had been the subject of intense police surveillance for several years previously. Obviously, both the RUC and the garda would have been extremely interested in keeping track of his movements.
In 1996 he became, briefly, adjutant general with a place on the Provisional Army Council. A year later, he had resigned, apparently unhappy with the renewed commitment that the Army Council had given to supporting the peace process which would include allowing Sinn Fein to sit in a new Northern Ireland Assembly.
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Shortly afterward, he took with him another major IRA figure, Val Lynch, who was one of the two people who headed the Provisional IRA’s Engineering Department, in charge of bomb-making facilities. This explained the comparative sophistication of the bombs that began showing up around Dundalk, where McKevitt is based, and those that went off at some of Northern Ireland’s border towns. They proved much more powerful than the bombs linked to the Continuity IRA.
As well, it was becoming apparent that McKevitt had both sympathizers and supporters in the South Armagh-County Louth borderlands. Many, if not most, of the South Armagh Provisionals who were widely regarded as the most effective IRA unit, were unhappy with the peace process and the concessions the Army Council was making. Rather like Tom Barry’s West Cork flying columns, which had proved so crucial to the outcome of the Irish War of Independence, the South Armagh Provisionals saw no good reason to abandon the armed campaign just yet.
For the Real IRA, their support was vital. It was from South Armagh that most of the major bombing attacks in Britain had been organized. Those attacks were reviewed as the key to winning the war. Unfortunately for the Real IRA, the police had already made intelligence inroads into South Armagh that allowed them to scoop up one of the area’s most deadly sniping units in April 1997, and then to frustrate two True IRA bombing runs to Britain. In the last one, in June, the alleged bombers were arrested en route to their targets in London.
However, the expertise of the South Armagh Provisionals was still apparent in several mortar bomb attacks on border police stations that were attributed to McKevitt’s group earlier this year. In February 1985, their mortars had been responsible for killing nine police officers in a devastating attack on Newry Police Station, so, undoubtedly, they were hoping to repeat that success" Another loss of such proportion, they probably surmised, would unhinge the peace process.
Instead, the Real IRA became responsible for a loss far greater than anything yet suffered by the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland. While it is hard to think of anything good coming of such a slaughter, it will almost certainly sound the death knell for further republican resistance to the Good Friday Agreement. The Real IRA may well and truly have delivered its own coup de grace.