On Thursday dissident Republican activists in Northern Ireland announced the creation of a new organization that they are calling the IRA from the merger of three smaller organizations: the Real IRA, the largest of the various dissident groups; Republican Action Against Drugs, a republican vigilante group in Derry; and a group of independent republican activists who have carried out a number of terror attacks in the last decade. But most analysts seem to feel that by centralizing the new group simply presents a juicier target for counter-intelligence efforts. Why is this?
Throughout The Troubles republicans operated in two or at most three different military organizations: the Provisional IRA, the Official IRA, and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). From February 1971 to May 1972 both wings of the IRA carried out separate armed struggles against the British state in Northern Ireland and against civilians of both communities. Then in May 1972 the Official IRA ended its armed struggle with a ceasefire, but refrained from disarming. It would go through two periods of feuding--one with the Provisional IRA and one with the INLA. It would also carry out the odd armed robbery to raise funds to support the Workers' Party, its political wing, during the 1970s and 1980s. The INLA broke off from the Official IRA in November 1974 but wasn't yet armed enough to carry out attacks until 1979. It broke into two feuding wings in 1986 and the IRA closed down the smaller of the two, the Irish People's Liberation Organization, the following year at Halloween for drug dealing.
During the 1980s with the INLA usually feuding among itself, the counterintelligence efforts of the British state--the army's Force Reaction Unit, MI6, and the RUC's Special Branch--were concentrated on the IRA. The IRA was gradually infiltrated both at the grassroots level and at the top so that it became more and more difficult for it to operate. The top double agent was Frank Scappaticci, from an old Belfast Italian-Irish family, who became the no. 2 IRA counterintelligence official in charge of interrogating suspected informers. After his role was revealed he was forced to flee to Italy. He could either protect other British agents or condemn them if he thought that they might expose his identity.
In the 1990s two new republican organizations emerged as a result of the Provisional IRA's ceasefire on September 1, 1994. These were Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. Continuity IRA was the armed wing of the Republican Sinn Fein, the traditionalist Sinn Fein that broke away from the Provisional Sinn Fein when it ended its policy of abstentionism--running for office and then not taking office once elected. Until the ceasefire Republican Sinn Fein abstained from forming an armed wing out of fear of IRA reprisals. But once the IRA went on ceasefire that fear was gone and it carried out a major bombing against a hotel in Fermanagh in 1996. In October 1997 the Army Convention, the IRA's governing body, held a meeting and backed the second ceasefire that the IRA had enacted in July. The IRA quartermaster--the official responsible for maintaining weapon's and explosive's dumps--then defected and formed the Real IRA with a number of dissident IRA people. The Real IRA carried out a bombing campaign against unionist towns in the Ulster midlands in the spring of 1998 in an attempt to end the peace process. After the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998 all through major dissident republican organizations (Real IRA, Continuity IRA, INLA) began cooperating in an effort to sabotage the agreement. The high point of this was the Omagh bombing in August 1998 in which more people were killed by a single bomb than any other bombing during The Troubles. Because the public reaction was so negative the INLA promptly called a ceasefire.
The dissidents spent the next decade trying to rebuild. gradually while the counterintelligence efforts were concentrated on the Real IRA. Two splinter groups split off from the Real IRA--Eirigi and Oglaih na hEirann (an Irish titled shared with the Provisional IRA and the Irish army). The INLA was reduced to drug dealers and other criminals active mostly in the cities of the Republic and it decommissioned its weapons in 2010 during the final round of decommissioning.
The major element of success that these dissident republicans lack is public support. By 1998 the nationalist republic including the republican ghettos in West and North Belfast, Derry, and South Armagh were tired of the war and wanted peace. Such an attitude doomed the IRA's campaigns to failure from 1939-42 and from 1956-62 when the people weren't interested in opposing the state with violence. Both campaigns withered. The Border Campaign produced a few new republican songs and the campaign during World War II is nearly totally forgotten except by the children and grandchildren of those involved including Gerry Adams, whose father was a teenage IRA fighter. The best the dissident republicans can hope to do is pass along the martial skills needed to a new generation and wait for a new spark to appear in another decade or two. Within a decade of the demise of the Border Campaign the bloody repression of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association's marching campaign by the Paisleyites had sparked The Troubles. That then took 30 years to burn itself out.