The shooting dead of Lyra McKee by the New IRA will not affect their actions “in any way”, a leading historian and republican researcher has said.
Dieter Reinisch said the death of the 29-year-old journalist in the Creggan area of Derry last Thursday week was most unlikely to be the last.
Dr Reinisch, attached to the University of Vienna, has studied republicanism for the last 15 years.
He has written one book on republicans in prison in the North and a second book is due on women and republicanism.
He has recently been in the North and met and interviewed senior members of Saoradh, the political wing of the New IRA. In an interview with the, he says:
- The New IRA is the “biggest, most experienced and best organised of all the dissident groups”
- Assesses the threat they pose as “quite high”, but not comparable to the threat posed by the Real IRA in the 1990s
- The group has not had much success in staging attacks saying this was because it has been “infiltrated” by intelligence services and hit hard by arms seizures and convictions
- Estimates that the group has a “few dozen” activists involved in organising, preparing and conducting attacks, a second group, amounting to hundreds of people, who provide logistical support, and a wider group, in the region of 1,000 to 1,500 strong, who provide political support
The academic said that he did not think that the New IRA had planned to fire shots on Thursday night last, but rather had wanted to build up tension over the weekend and take armed action on Monday night after their Easter commemoration.
“They had plans to stage an attack on the PSNI,” he said.
“I expected on Monday a militant display with a riot, petrol bombs and to fire shots, but on Thursday they chose to do it as there was a relatively big riot, there was a lot of people out, there was media there and people were broadcasting live, including on Facebook and Twitter, and they thought ‘let’s do it tonight’.”
Dr Reinisch said it was his understanding that the order was to shoot towards the police and “not into the crowd”: “I think their aim was to have a publicity stunt, to fire shots into the air. The media was there and the headline the following day would be ‘New IRA fire shots in Derry’.”
Asked were the gunmen young and reckless, he said:
There were definitely very young, you can see in the video, but they knew what they were doing. The second masked man remained calm as he collected the bullets, so they were not completely inexperienced. There were firing into the crowd and not into the air. I’m pretty sure that was a mistake, that the organisation didn’t want that and that wasn’t the order.
"Their statement (issued subsequently) seems to reflect that.”
However, he added: “There’s always a risk when you give anyone a gun and personally I was very surprised they took that risk. They killed an innocent civilian. And many of the people standing very close to Lyra McKee were republicans, known members of other organisations, they could easily have been shot.”
Mr Reinisch said the New IRA has a “significant presence” in Derry, “particularly in the Creggan area” and said it was “one of three strongholds” of the group.
“They are recruiting young members, teens, young men. They have a significant presence and authority there.” He said high unemployment and deprivation in the area were factors and said many of the young men “come from republican families”.
He added: “That’s very important to understand. They may have not lived through the conflict but grew up as republicans. You add in no jobs and that many of them don’t see a future in Derry, and are radicalised by an organisation offering an alternative.”
He said the New IRA was “the biggest, most experienced and best organised of all the dissident groups, no doubt. The pose a threat. It’s very likely we will see future attacks, in the near future. The death of Lyra McKee will not affect their strategy in any way.”
Expanding on the threat, he said: “The threat they pose is quite high. It’s still weaker than the Real IRA in the 1990s. It’s not comparable to that.” He said they didn’t have the success rate in staging attacks that the Real IRA had.
“I would consider them very much infiltrated by the intelligence services in the last two to three years. Most of their operations have failed due to the intelligence services and that is most likely coming from within the organisation.”
He said the conviction of Kevin Braney, from Tallaght, Dublin, for the 2013 murder of Real IRA man Peter Butterly, last February was an example of the hit the organisation had taken.
Braney, a former chairman of Saoradh, was considered the most senior New IRA figure south of the border.
“Those convictions are a huge blow for the organisation as were the recent arms finds in Co Louth,” he said.
There are currently 40 subversives in Irish prisons, the bulk in Portlaoise, Co Laois. Mr Reinisch said the car bomb outside Derry courthouse last January illustrated the organisation was “capable of building bombs”.
He said the organisation has “experienced members” from the Provisional IRA, which provided that generational link to the new generation of young republicans. However, he said the organisation was facing problems in accessing explosive material.
“Most of the arsenal currently being used dates back to the Provisional IRA, arsenals that weren’t decommissioned. That won’t last forever. They need to look for alternatives,” he said.
He said the eastern European market was the obvious source and said links with Lithuania “still exist and were exploited”.
The issue was bringing it back into the country. He said criminal gangs have better networks to do that.
He said he believed the New IRA was looking for new technology to “remote control bombs and car bombs”.
On the numbers attached to the New IRA, he broke it down into three groups:
- A “few dozen” people actively involved in attacks — from organising, to preparing and planning and conducting them
- A wider group that supports them, including infrastructure, safe houses, fundraising, intelligence, training camps, which he estimates to be in the hundreds
- A third and the biggest group, political support and more fundraising, sympathisers and family members, numbering around 1,000 to 1,500, adding that there would be overlap between the groups “One should not underestimate the support for radical republicans in some areas in the North,” he said
He said the death of Lyra McKee “will not affect Saoradh in the long run”.
“Hardcore republicans know this can happen, they know it’s a mistake and regret it, but know there can be casualties when you put guns on the street.
In their view it’s inevitable and part of the republican struggle. For radical republicans, those who support the New IRA, they will still support it after the death of Lyra McKee. It will make no difference to them.”
In relation to the other dissident groups, he said the Real IRA (the bulk of which was subsumed into the New IRA) was no longer present in the North, but that “pockets” remain in the south, “particularly” in Cork and lesser so in Dublin.
He said the Continuity IRA was no longer capable of staging attacks and was splintered and had no arsenal of weapons. He said the Republican Sinn Féin march (the political group associated with CIRA) in Dublin was small.
One of the most dangerous groups in recent years was Óglaigh na hÉireann, comprising some Real IRA and former Provisional IRA figures. The conviction of Seamus McGrane, a senior figure, for directing terrorism, and other convictions in the North, effectively decapitated it, Garda sources have said.
“Óglaigh na hÉireann is on ceasefire,” said Mr Reinisch.
It still exists and has a structure, but I can’t see them ending their ceasefire.
He said they have a presence in Belfast north and west and south Armagh. Its political grouping, the Republican Network for Unity, held a march over the weekend in Ardoyne, north Belfast.
On Brexit and the ongoing absence of a power-sharing government in Stormont, he considered these as not having a direct role in the thinking and strategy of the New IRA. However, he added: “Stormont and Brexit definitely provide oxygen for radical groups and have an indirect impact. They will milk it.
“If border posts go up, I’ve no doubt it will be one of the first targets of the New IRA. It will be a symbolic act and the talk of direct rule plays into the hands of radical republicans.”