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Explainer: The New IRA and their not-so-new belief in violent republicanism

The New IRA was formed in 2012.

LAST UPDATE | 24 Feb 2023

THE NEW IRA is the primary focus of the PSNI’s major investigation into the shooting of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in Omagh, Co Tyrone on Wednesday night.

A look at the paramilitary organisation’s history highlights both the fractured nature of dissident groups but also its murderous focus on people, including PSNI officers, who are the living embodiment of what they term “crown forces”. 

The New IRA was formed in 2012, and authorities believe it is politically affiliated with the Saoradh group, which was formed in 2016. 

Like ETA in the Basque County, the group espouses a far-left leaning ideology of revolution, similar to that mooted by other European terror groups in the 1960s and 1970s.  

Saoradh denies the links with the New IRA’s violence but a member of its group was charged with the attempted murder of two police officers in a bomb attack in Strabane last November. 

During that hearing, according to the Belfast Telegraph, a detective inspector told the court of the defendant: “He is a member of Saoradh and attended a protest outside Strabane Magistrates Court in the wake of the explosion and investigation. Saoradh reject the peace process, and this was a terrorist incident and the defendant is a key player.”

A lengthy press release posted on the Saoradh website on 8 February this year criticised what it called the “normalisation process” after community policing officers visited a school in Derry.

The release said: “These PR stunts, which have been becoming more frequent, serve only the normalisation of the Crown Force agenda which is being pushed on us and again, our children, by the Catholic Church, Sinn Féin, the SDLP.

“The lengths that they are going to in an attempt to normalise the Crown Forces is like none ever seen before and it can only be seen as accepted if it is allowed to continue.” 

This rhetoric is commonplace online but has also made it onto the streets. In April 2019, Saoradh held a rally on O’Connell Street in Dublin. The members, numbering about 40, marched while dressed in green khaki military uniforms, berets and wearing black aviator glasses. 

republican 260 The 'parade' in April 2019

Bemused Dubliners looked on at the spectacle of the mismatched and poorly drilled marchers stomping their way up the country’s main street. 

Though the scene was a comical one on first glance, when reporters took a closer look into the crowd, there were more sinister elements present. Keeping pace with the marchers and standing at the GPO were old former Provisional IRA men. 

The Dublin march took place just days after alleged members of the group murdered Lyra McKee at a riot in Derry.

Also in the crowd that day were a number of plain clothes Special Detective Unit gardaí – taking note of and walking alongside attendees. They watched the speeches and walked behind the group as they made their way to Arbour Hill to lay wreaths for the dead leaders of The Rising.

It was an attempt at a show of force by Saoradh – ostensibly a rally for the commemoration of 1916, but really a whistle to potential supporters.

Republican groups

The Provisional IRA (PIRA) formed in the late 1960s, declaring a ceasefire in 1997 after Sinn Féin entered into Northern Ireland peace talks. 

In 1998, after the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin brought with it a loyal band of PIRA people who they say have dropped the armalite firearms of The Troubles in favour of the ballot box and peace. 

An issue now for law enforcement both North and South of the border is that the Good Friday Agreement and the broader peace process led to a fracturing of armed Republican groups. 

Within those old ranks of PIRA membership was a group of pure hardliners, intent on staying committed to violence. They do not recognise the Irish State and believe that the last legitimate Dáil was in 1919 – and that the only way to remove Britain from the six counties is through guns and bombs.

In the wake of the PIRA’s ceasefire, those revolutionaries formed dissident factions such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, and later the New IRA.

The horror of the Omagh bombing in 1998 by the Real IRA – established a year earlier – caused such revulsion among their financial supporters, many of whom are in the United States, that outbreaks of violence were contained for several years. 

psni-officers-watch-as-a-colour-party-takes-part-in-a-parade-in-newry-co-down-the-political-party-saoradh-had-organised-the-parade-to-commemorate-hunger-strikes PSNI officers watch as a colour party takes part in a parade in Newry, Co Down. The political party Saoradh had organised the parade to commemorate hunger strikes. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Political leanings

While security sources had feared a resurgence in activities around the 2016 commemoration of the 1916 Rising, what has appeared to happen is a realisation by violent Republicans that there was a need to consolidate and reorganise.

Sources said there has been an effort by the various dissident groups to build a concerted and coordinated campaign with groups amalgamating into the New IRA. 

Not all agreed. Some of the members of the Real IRA and other groupings have refused to join forces and have continued to operate under their previous groupings. For instance, a Real IRA faction in Cork refused to amalgamate into the new organisation.

There are still different named groups such as Arm na Poblachta, Oglaigh na hEireann and others, but it is the New IRA that is now seen as the main player. 

Power base

The New IRA’s power base is generally believed to be in the Creggan area of Derry, where Lyra McKee was murdered, but it reaches further than that and goes out into communities across North and South of the border. 

While it is difficult to get an absolute figure on membership levels, sources believe there could be upwards of 200 hardcore people involved, with other disparate elements orbiting around it.

What is certain is that the New IRA has grown in numbers and armaments despite infiltration of its ranks by suspected MI5 agent Dennis McFadden.

Security forces have said there has been intelligence circulating that the group was moving to a more aggressive targeting of security forces.

MI5 has gathered information that potential targets were discussed at a meeting. These allegedly included the bombing of US troops at Shannon Airport to find favour with Middle East terrorist groups.  

Violent strategy

In April 2022, following a Saoradh-organised event at a Derry cemetery, PSNI officers were attacked. The PSNI alleged then that it was an orchestrated attack by the New IRA. 

Police in the North arrested four men last August in connection with an ongoing investigation into activities of the New IRA.

The New IRA strategy is becoming clear – it is focused on PSNI officers.

Another bomb attack occurred a few days after the attempted murder of two PSNI officers in November 2022, when a viable device was left outside a police station in Derry.  

In January and February, PSNI officers carried out search operations in various locations targeted at the membership of the New IRA. 

masked-nationalist-youths-throw-petrol-bombs-at-psni-vehicles-during-riots-in-bogide-londonderry Masked nationalist rioters launch petrol bombs at PSNI vehicles in Derry. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

When the New IRA launches attacks, the security services in the North are quick to make arrests. The PSNI has already arrested three men for the shooting of the Detective Chief Inspector in Omagh. 

Critical to the investigation into the attempted murder is that the victim is a Detective Chief Inspector – someone whose job would routinely involve investigations with intelligence gathered on high-stakes terrorist groups. 

There is currently a significant sharing of information between the PSNI and gardaí – for instance, on Wednesday night gardaí moved armed units into border crossing zones as the PSNI warned them the gunmen were suspected to be heading south. 

Today, SDU detectives will be chatting to contacts and visiting suspected New IRA members at their homes, while analysts will be “going up on phones” to listen and monitor dissident activities. 

There is an old saying often touted at police officers in the North and gardaí in the South: that IRA activists only need to be lucky once. 

While security forces have been lucky more than once in catching the terrorist group before the commission of a terrorist act, all it takes is one operation to get through.

Luck ran out in Omagh on Wednesday night, leaving a high-ranking PSNI officer badly injured after an attack that took place in front of his son. The political fall out for the New IRA is clear with political leaders and communities joining together in abhorrence at the incident.

Today, security officers in Ireland and Britain will be working together to ensure that doesn’t happen again. 

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