Understanding the 'New IRA', Who Sent Explosives Around the UK

The dissident group recently took responsibility for the four packages found around the country, and another – as-yet un-located – parcel.

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22 March 2019, 9:15am

A member of the "Real IRA" with an improvised grenade launcher. Photo circulated by the group. 

In early March, packages containing explosives and marked "Love ÉIRE" were sent to four locations across the UK, including Heathrow airport and the University of Glasgow. After mass evacuations took place, counter-terrorism experts briefly considered the possibility of a lone wolf attacker, but widespread speculation that dissident Irish Republicans were behind the bombs began to spread.

Last week, suspicions were finally confirmed: in a statement sent to the Irish News, using a recognised code word, dissident Irish Republicans referring to themselves as "the IRA" claimed responsibility for the attacks, and for an additional as-yet un-located parcel. The organisation is distinct from the now disarmed Provisional IRA (the Republican paramilitaries who fought in The Troubles) and have been dubbed the "New IRA" by the Irish and British press.

Founded in 2012, the so-called "New IRA" is the most active dissident Republican group currently operating in Ireland. Its members have roots in numerous other Republican organisations: Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), the "Real IRA" and numerous independents. A car bomb attack outside a Derry courthouse back in January – as well as a spate of other incidents, including seven letter bombs that were sent to various British targets in 2014 – have also been attributed to the group, which rejects the widely supported Good Friday Agreement and seeks to establish a 32-county socialist Irish Republic by violent means.

The attacks mark both an escalation of dissident Republican activity and a departure from a traditional position of not targeting Scotland. "It is strange, and it is surprising," says Dr Marisa McGlinchey, Assistant Professor in Political Science at Coventry University, and author of Unfinished Business – The Politics of "Dissident" Irish Republicanism. "The Republican movement has seen Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, as potential support bases, and where there would be potential safe houses."

IRA graffiti derry
An IRA sign in the Bogside neighbourhood in Derry. Photo: Thomas Krych / Alamy Stock Photo

Dissident Irish Republicanism and paramilitary activity remain a continual background presence since the end of The Troubles, and approximately 48 Republican prisoners are currently being in held in Ireland, most of whom identify as members of the so-called New IRA. According to statistics released by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) there were 15 bombing incidents, 37 shooting incidents and two security-related deaths between March of 2018 and February of 2019. A total of 1.3kg of explosive rounds and 3,333 rounds of ammunition were also seized.

Recently, fears of a return to violence in the event of a hard border have placed a magnifying glass over dissident Republicanism. The Gardaí (police) are compiling a database of people suspected of supporting Republican paramilitaries, and MI5 have reportedly sent 20 percent of its forces to Northern Ireland in a bid to prevent terror attacks in the wake of Brexit.

Republicans, however, are adamant that their actions are not a response to Brexit per se, but that Britain's choice to leave the EU merely represents yet another opportunity to be seized: "They're very keen to locate their actions in the long republican campaign; they would see their actions as the latest phase in the republican struggle for sovereignty," says Dr McGlinchey. "Republicans would assert that what they do isn’t in response to contemporary events, or to Brexit."

While authorities deem the threat-level of a major attack in Britain as moderate (unlikely, albeit possible) the potential of a return to a hard border in Northern Ireland (where the threat level is "severe") paints a more gruesome picture: if British soldiers are present, it’s certain they’re going to get shot.

"A hard border will provide hard targets for republicans, and I’ve no doubt that they’ll be attacked if a hard border is erected," McGlinchey adds. "But as for a breakout of violence more generally, I just don’t think the appetite is there anymore… I think times have changed. It’s not the same."

It has been hypothesised that Saoradh – an unregistered far-left political party of Irish Republicans made up of former members of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, Republican Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Socialist Party and others – are currently functioning as the political wing of the so-called "New IRA". While they have stated that a return to an armed struggle is inevitable, the party vehemently denies any involvement whatsoever with paramilitaries.

Speculation notwithstanding, it is next to impossible to formally gauge what percentage of the Saoradh’s members, if any, approve of the recent New IRA campaign – openly doing so is a serious offence under the Terrorism Act. "Anyone who wanted to publicly support recent acts of resistance against British Crown forces, or British installations… they can’t do so," explains Paddy Gallagher, the group's Public Relations Officer, over the phone. "Under British terror law it’s illegal to publicly support that or be seen to be supporting that."

Saoradh’s website also refers to the current political situation in Ireland as an "ongoing struggle" and claims that the New IRA’s campaign is indicative of an "unfinished revolution". Gallagher elaborates: "While Britain denies the sovereignty of the Irish people, there will always be women and men that are willing and capable of carrying out acts of resistance, whether that’s in an occupied Ireland, or in Britain itself." The group take issue with the widely-used term "dissident Republican", arguing that it is Sinn Féin who have betrayed Republican ideals by accepting the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process.

Some British media outlets have haphazardly conflated the New IRA with the Provisional IRA, but the group enjoy very little public support and have no popular political struggles whatsoever. While the Provos used the hunger strikes and internment to gain a certain level public sympathy, the so-called "New IRA" have few well-wishers – their leader was recently imprisoned for 25 years by the non-jury Special Criminal Court, a remnant from The Troubles used to prosecute high-profile criminality, and no mainstream protests took place.

Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, dissident Republican groups who insist that they, not Sinn Féin, are the rightful inheritors of the legacy of the 1916 Easter Rising remain active in Ireland. As long as Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, it is likely that someone, somewhere, will refer to themselves as "the IRA" – regardless of how much public condemnation they receive.

@BigPauliDoyle