The New IRA


By Mr. Andy Oppenheimer, former editor of CBNW

On 22 February, a serving senior officer of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) was shot in front of his young son at a sports complex in Omagh, NI. Six arrests followed. The attack on DCI John Caldwell was later claimed by a dissident Irish Republican terrorist group known as the ‘New IRA’.  

Immediately following the shooting, hundreds of Omagh citizens protested against paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland. Omagh was the site of the worst Irish Republican bombing attack, when on 15 August 1998 – only months after the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – 29 were killed and hundreds were injured by a 500-lb ammonium nitrate-Semtex car bomb planted by an earlier spinoff group, the Real IRA. The UK government’s decision in February 2023 to hold an inquiry into the bombing is the result of a long campaign by several of the injured and bereaved. 

Post-Brexit NI

Britain’s exit from the EU and the subsequent NI Protocol – now renegotiated in February – has clouded these alignments and issues. NI has not had a working devolved government since the May 2022 Assembly election. The border issue has added to an unstable mix for potential terrorism.  

Loyalist terrorism is an additional threat in the face of a Sinn Fein majority and further progress towards a united Ireland. A warning came in February from the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) that loyalists would “wreck the place” and “the streets will be in flames” if any deal between the UK and EU did not remove the Irish Sea border. 

NI: A very brief history

Before and since the partition of the island of Ireland in 1921, the majority of NI’s population are Protestant unionist or loyalist, determined to remain part of the UK. A growing minority of Catholic nationalists or republicans – and others – support a united Ireland.  

Paramilitary organisations on both sides carried out campaigns of terrorism for decades, most notably from the late 1960s onwards, that resulted in over 3,000 deaths. 

However, Northern Ireland Related Terrorism (NIRT) has declined considerably in this century. With so many other pressing issues the public, media and government bodies on the ‘mainland’ have long shown relative indifference to events in Northern Ireland.  

Provisional IRA mercury tilt switch, taken from heating systems. A glass tube containing a blob of mercury with two terminals was mounted on the side of a plastic box, attached with a magnet underneath the driver’s side. When the car drove off or went up or down a certain gradient, the mercury would move forward, make the connection and detonate the IED.  
Photo by the author, IRA Inventory of Weapons, An Garda Síochána HQ, Dublin 

The dissident variants

Out of what former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams called an ‘alphabet soup’ of Republican Dissident factions, the New IRA – formed between 2011 and 2012 – is a fusion of several groups, including the Real IRA, the group behind the 1998 Omagh bomb.  

Three other dissident republican groups that split off from the Provisional IRA following the 1998 GFA are:  

  • Continuity IRA (CIRA) 
  • Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH – which split into two factions ONH and IRB)  
  • Arm na Poblacht (ANP).  

All oppose the peace process and regard violence as a legitimate way to achieve a united Ireland. Some are even regarded as a threat to Sinn Fein politicians. 

Leftover weaponry

It is long feared that not all of the IRA’s vast arsenal was put ‘beyond use’ during several phases of decommissioning from 2001 to 2005. Some dissident factions still have access to weapons. Hardline divisions such as South Armagh IRA did not decommission substantial arms caches. Many firearms and Semtex explosives supplied by Libya’s Col Gaddafi to the Provisional IRA in the 1980s are said to have been secreted in small batches into deep hides in the Irish Republic. 

RPG-7 with warhead detached. One of a batch that PIRA obtained from Libya as early as 1972. It is believed dissident groups have access to weapons caches that were not decommissioned. Credit: ©Michal Maňas/Wikipedia

Attack Timeline

  • These groups have carried out several shootings and bombings:
    • March 2016: prison officer Adrian Ismay was killed by a booby-trap IED planted by the New IRA under his van in east Belfast.  
    • November 2012: Maghaberry prison officer David Black was shot dead on his way to work.  
    • April 2011: PC Ronan Kerr was killed by a booby-trap car bomb planted outside his home.  
    • January 2010: PC Peadar Heffron was seriously injured by a booby trap IED detonated under his car near his home in Randalstown, Co Antrim.  
    • March 2009: PSNI Officer Stephen Carroll was shot dead in Craigavon, Co. Armagh; two days earlier two British Army officers were shot dead in Massareene, Co Antrim. 

A snapshot: 2019

  • September: Command-wire IED found in a parked car, Creggan, Derry. Mortar bomb abandoned near a police station in Strabane 
  • August: IED exploded near Wattlebridge, Co. Fermanagh after hoax ‘come-on’ device to lure officers 
  • June: device exploded under PSNI officer’s car outside a golf club, E. Belfast 
  • April: journalist shot dead at rioting in the Creggan, Derry. Previous week: mortar tube and command wire found in Castlewellan, County Down 
  • March: letter bombs mailed by New IRA to Waterloo Station, buildings near Heathrow and London City airports and Glasgow University 
  • January: bomb in a van explodes in outside Derry Courthouse. 
A Memorial was erected at the site of the bombing that took place on 15 August 1998 in Market Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Some 29 people were killed and at least 220 were injured in the most lethal IRA-related bombing in the history of the so-called ‘Troubles.’ Credit: ©Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons

PIRA’s legacy

The Provisional IRA arose as an infinitely more ruthless spin-off from the old IRA of the 1920s to the most efficiently organised terror group in modern history before the dawn of al-Qaeda. 

Throughout its campaign until decommissioning ended in 2005, PIRA produced an unparalleled and unprecedented variety of explosives, detonators, timing mechanisms, and a host of other new or adapted components for its IEDs.  

Its ‘Engineering Division’ manufactured everything from handmade letter bombs to vast 2,000-kg ammonium nitrate-Semtex VBIEDs (vehicle borne IEDs), most notoriously deployed in Belfast, the City of London, and Manchester.  

The IRA’s explosives

The 14,540 kg of explosives deployed in the IRA’s 30-year campaign included gunpowder; dynamite two years after it was invented by Alfred Nobel in the mid-19th century; potassium chlorate (1920s); gelignite; Semtex; ammonium nitrate (AN); aluminium powder; iron oxide; carbide; 808, TNT, ammonal; sodium chlorate plus nitrobenzene (‘Co-op mix’).  

IRA engineers began to make their own det cord by distilling out explosives from the Semtex mix. These were extracted and washed with solvents, then poured into clear plastic tubing for the cord. 
Photo by the author, IRA Inventory of Weapons, An Garda Síochána HQ, Dublin 

PIRA had access to commercial-grade explosives. In the early 1970s gelignite and Quarrex came over the border from the Republic via English manufacturers. By mid-1972, 2,660 kg of explosives were detonated in 126 explosions.  

The PIRA made AN from ample supplies of farm fertiliser as a bulk HME used for car bombs. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and others have since used AN. It is banned in Northern Ireland and the Republic and tightly restricted in the EU. An insensitive explosive, it would be detonated by a standard detonator and Semtex as a booster. A common AN mixture was ANFO (ammonium nitrate plus fuel oil).  

The IRA’s ‘magic marble’

The vast three-tonne stock of Semtex was sparingly used, but notably deployed in dozens of notorious PIRA attacks – including the 1987 Enniskillen bomb which killed 11, and the 1991 dual mortar attack on 10 and 11 Downing Street.  

A plastic bonded equivalent to C-4, Semtex is highly stable and pliable. Old-stock Semtex had no odour so was hard to detect – with a long shelf life of 30-40 years. Around 1.6 kg can blow up a two-storey building.  

Severe to substantial – and back

In recent years, the security services have successfully disrupted activities of all NI-based terror groups and have made significant arms seizures. Attacks have been sporadic and in no way comparable to the horror days of ‘The Troubles.’ In the past year the threat level from dissident Republican terrorism in NI was lowered, as advised by MI5, from Severe to Substantial for the first time in twelve years – the same level as on the mainland.  

However, following the shooting of DCI John Caldwell and other indicators in 2023, on 28 March the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland was restored to Severe. This still means an attack is highly likely. However, one must hope that – as the recent protests in Omagh showed – the people of Northern Ireland as a whole are far less likely now than in its entire history to offer support and succour to terrorists. 

About the Author:

Andy Oppenheimer is author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets – A History of Deadly Ingenuity (2008) and a former editor of CBNW and Jane’s NBC Defence. He is a Member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians & Investigators and an Associate Member of the Institute of Explosives Engineers and has written and lectured on the IRA since 2002. 

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