Northern Ireland's sectarian conflict, which raged most seriously from 1969 to 1998, pitted Protestant "unionists," who want to maintain their link with London, against Roman Catholic "nationalists" or "republicans," who want to reunite Northern Ireland with the independent Republic of Ireland. The provisional Irish Republican Army, a terrorist group, conducted a violent struggle against British rule for three decades until it sued for peace at the end of the 1990s. When its leadership adopted a policy of negotiating with British authorities, several splinter groups emerged, and they remain committed to removing British influence from Northern Ireland and sabotaging the peace process through violence. The most serious of them are the Real IRA and Continuity Irish Republican Army, both listed as active terrorist groups in the U.S. State Department's 2007 Country Report. Neither group has mounted a large-scale attack since 1998, yet both continue to engage in smaller attacks, including shootings and firebombings, in an effort to derail the relative peace that has been in place since the Belfast Agreement was signed that year. A third group, the Irish National Liberation Army, dates to the Cold War and clings to a Marxist ideology that has left it largely irrelevant today.
The Real IRA (RIRA) was formed in 1997 by hard-liners who opposed the negotiations being pursued by the provisional IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein. Real IRA hoped to derail the peace process and further the reunification movement by continuing terrorist activities. British authorities say the Real IRA is recruiting new members, increasing its intelligence gathering capabilities, and continuing its armed campaign against British presence in Northern Ireland. The U.S. State Department estimates that the Real IRA has about one hundred active members and may receive support from people who disapprove of the role that Sinn Fein—the political branch of the original IRA—plays in the peace process.
The last fatal attack carried out by the Real IRA was in August 2002, when a construction worker was killed at a British Army base in London. More recently, two policemen in Northern Ireland were wounded in two armed attacks claimed by the Real IRA in November 2007. The group is suspected of raising money among U.S. supporters disillusioned by the Belfast peace process and of trying to purchase guns from U.S. dealers, according to the State Department.
But the group's primary notoriety stems from the August 1998 bombing in Omagh, a Northern Irish market town. The Real IRA set off a 500-pound car bomb that caused the greatest one-day loss of life in the decades-old conflict, killing twenty-nine people. The group claimed the deaths were the result of a botched warning that had been meant to allow authorities to clear the streets of Omagh, then in the final day of an annual street fair. The Omagh attack was so widely condemned, including by the provisional IRA and Sinn Fein, that the Real IRA subsequently declared a cease-fire. The group resumed terrorist operations early in 2000.
The Real IRA was founded by Michael (Mickey) McKevitt, an Irish republican who was in charge of the provisional IRA's armory before he split over the IRA's new peace policy. His common-law wife, Bernadette Sands McKevitt, is the sister of Bobby Sands, the famous IRA gunman and member of British Parliament who died in prison during a 1981 hunger strike. McKevitt was arrested in March 2001 by Irish authorities, convicted in August 2003, and is currently serving a twenty-year sentence in an Irish jail.
Continuity Irish Republican Army
The Continuity IRA (CIRA), which branched off from the IRA in 1994 as the "clandestine armed wing of Republican Sinn Fein," considers itself to be a continuation of the original IRA campaign to remove British control from Northern Ireland, according to the State Department's 2007 Country Report. Continuity IRA is thought to have about fifty members who receive aid from supporters in the United States.
Members of CIRA are responsible for attacks around Northern Ireland over the years. Since 1994, the Continuity IRA has conducted sporadic assassinations and bombings, mostly aimed at Protestant targets in Northern Ireland and around Belfast. CIRA released a list in 2006 identifying about twenty people who were to be targeted by violence. The State Department says that after the list was made public, several were the victims of shootings. Although no attacks were successful in 2007, three members were arrested after the discovery of a homemade bomb on a railway. It is thought that the people who would later establish the Continuity IRA carried out a notorious 1987 bombing in the Northern Ireland town of Enniskillen that killed eleven people.
Irish National Liberation Army
The least active of the splinter groups is the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Among other actions against Protestant terror groups, its gunmen shot dead Billy Wright, the notorious leader of a Protestant or "loyalist" terrorist group, while he was serving a sentence in Northern Ireland's Maze prison in December 1997. These days, experts say the INLA is known as much or more for its participation in the drug trade and other criminal activities as it is for outright terrorism.