Ahern briefed Blair on Real IRA activity two weeks before Omagh bombing

On the morning after the bombing Ahern and Blair met in Belfast to discuss its implications and their joint response

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told British prime minister Tony Blair only two weeks before the Omagh bombing in August 1998 that while the breakaway Real IRA had attracted hard core members it did not seem to be “overly active”.

In a telephone conversation between the two leaders on July 31st, Ahern shared intelligence on the new paramilitary group, composed of former Provisional IRA members who opposed the ceasefire and the peace process.

“Our security people, like yours, I think overstate the position,” he said. “Even when we check it out [the Real IRA] obviously have somewhere close to a hundred people.

“The quality of them I think are probably good enough in that they have an awful lot of the wrong people from our point of view. But they don’t seem to be overly active.”

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He added: “Now there is a hard core that of course never stops, never has stopped, and they never will… as long as it doesn’t numerically get too big it means we can keep a good eye on it.

“There is always the worry that somewhere along the way somebody slips you but I think our guys feel fairly happy that they know they’re keeping a handle on it,” he told Mr Blair, who replied “Yeah, I see.”

A little over a fortnight later, on August 15th, a car bombing carried out in Omagh, Co Tyrone, by the Real IRA killed 29 people – one of them a woman pregnant with twins – and injured 220.

The transcript of the conversation between the two leaders is contained in confidential records from 1991 to 1998 held by the Department of an Taoiseach which have now been transferred to the National Archive for public viewing.

Outrage

On the morning after the outrage Ahern and Blair met in Stormont House in Belfast along with officials to discuss the bombing, its implications and their joint response.

A note of the meeting said Ahern told the British prime minister that “we were looking one hundred per cent at McKevitt and Sands and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and the Real IRA”.

That was a reference to the late Michael McKevitt from Dundalk, leader of the Real IRA. He was never convicted specifically for the Omagh bombing but was jailed for directing terrorism by the Special Criminal Court. His then wife Bernadette Sands McKevitt is a sister of the hunger striker Bobby Sands and was a leading figure in the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, a political organisation. She has never been charged with or convicted of any criminal offence.

“The dissidents were a dangerous and ruthless group, with some support from former members of the Provisional IRA technical and engineering unit,” said Ahern, referring to experienced bomb-makers from Monaghan and south Armagh who had switched allegiance to the Real IRA.

The Irish authorities were dealing with people who had the know-how and technology and the capability to commit atrocities, he told Blair.

During the course of the meeting on August 16th, both Ahern and Blair decided they would need to work very quickly on getting Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and the Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble to come up with a formulation of words – acceptable to Trimble – “which would have the effect of people understanding the the war was over”.

There was a need to signal that Omagh and previous atrocities were “firmly in the past”.

“If Adams said certain things, Trimble could respond in a certain way,” said Ahern.

Step forward

The British prime minister said Adams’ statement unequivocally condemning the Omagh bombing had been helpful. He said he would speak to Trimble and that a Sinn Féin statement on the war being over would enable him to say it was “a big step forward”.

It was known at the meeting that Adams and Martin McGuinness had made clear they had difficulties with the phrase “war is over”. They said there could be another formulation of words.

In a telephone call between Ahern and Adams several days later, Adams said he had spoken to Blair and told him he was “prepared to try and develop words to facilitate David Trimble”.

At the time Trimble was refusing to meet Adams to progress the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive unless Sinn Féin was prepared to accept the IRA would begin to decommission arms.

Adams said that any initiative would obviously have to involve Trimble “because there is no point in us going on fishing expeditions” . He said “David Trimble could also ease the thing by thinking of words that he could say… without making this a dog’s dinner”. (National Archive file: 2021/100/1)

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