Belfast Telegraph

Ciaran Barnes: New IRA has lost guns, but can still get explosives

Screengrab from CCTV footage of the blast (PSNI/PA)
Screengrab from CCTV footage of the blast (PSNI/PA)
Ciaran Barnes

By Ciaran Barnes

Despite several setbacks, the New IRA still retains the capacity to carry out mass murder - as the Bishop Street bomb so nearly proved.

The dissident group does not have the military capacity or support within nationalist areas to sustain a constant campaign of violence against the state.

However, it is capable of sporadic and deadly attacks, with its leaders regarding the Derry bomb a success as it generated headlines around the world.

The New IRA in the city is led by a former member of the Provisional IRA, who, after leaving, went on to form the vigilante gang Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD).

RAAD - renowned for shooting drug dealers who refused to pay it protection money - merged with the Real IRA in 2012 to create the New IRA. At its inception the New IRA counted Derry City, north and west Belfast, Lurgan and east Tyrone as its strongholds.

The group was responsible for the murders of prison officers David Black and Adrian Ismay.

But the arrest of several high-profile members and the east Tyrone unit walking away almost en masse mean there is now really only a presence in Derry City and pockets of Belfast. Proof of this is in the New IRA's attacks - or lack of - in recent times.

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Before the Bishop Street bomb, the last occasion when the group made a concerted effort to kill was two years ago in January 2017 when a gunman opened fire on police officers at a north Belfast service station.

Since then the New IRA has been beset by setbacks, the biggest of which occurred before Christmas when almost its entire Belfast arsenal was destroyed in a boiler house fire.

Among the weapons rendered useless by the flames were two AK47 assault rifles, two shotguns and a sniper's rifle. The loss of the AK47s, in particular, hit the New IRA hard. Back when it began, the group's Belfast brigade had six of the prized assault rifles, according to security sources.

But now it has only one, with two recovered in Ardoyne after a botched gun attack on a passing PSNI patrol, one found hidden in a bush at Belfast Zoo, and two ruined in the boiler-house blaze.

Although also short on firepower, the New IRA's Derry City unit did manage to fire shots at police during five nights of organised rioting there last summer.

There were no injuries, with republicans in the city later dismissing the attack as bravado with no real intention to murder.

While obtaining and holding onto guns poses the New IRA with problems, getting explosives does not.

It has access to small amounts of Provisional IRA Semtex which was not decommissioned, and it will be telling if the PSNI confirm that this was used in the Bishop Street bomb.

The explosive had largely been deployed by the New IRA in under-car booby-trap bomb attacks. However, the group seems to have abandoned this tactic after four of the devices fell off the cars of serving police officers between 2014 and 2017.

Given the 'success' of the weekend explosion in Derry, it is likely that the New IRA will pursue more attacks of this nature. After all, it is much easier to abandon a device in a town centre than it is to open fire on armed cops.

This obviously puts the public at much greater risk, but then considerations like that barely register with the New IRA's leadership - the Bishop Street bomb showed that.

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