Three explosions occurred overnight Nov. 1 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The likely culprits are members of the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA), a fringe group that will likely use these types of attacks as a means to try and derail talks between Northern Ireland's main political parties and the U.K. government. The latest attacks also highlight the devolution of RIRA's tactics and capabilities.
Three incendiary devices exploded in Belfast, Northern Ireland, overnight on Nov. 1. The first fire occurred at a Homebase hardware store on Belfast's Boucher Road at around 2 a.m. Flames from the store, some reaching hundreds of feet into the air, spread to a nearby furniture store. As fire crews were putting out the Homebase fire, another bomb exploded at Smyth's toy store across the street. Elsewhere around the same time, the JJB Sports store in central Belfast was also hit by a firebomb. The attacks are believed to be the work of members of the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA), a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) believed to have around 200 members. Though both the RIRA and IRA are committed to achieving full union with the rest of Ireland, the IRA has moved in the direction of using political means to reach that goal, while the RIRA believes it can only be achieved through violence. It is not a coincidence that attacks come as leaders from Northern Ireland's main political parties — including Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party — are headed to London for talks with Chancellor Gordon Brown to discuss economic incentives that could lay the groundwork for devolution (increased autonomy for Northern Ireland). All parties involved remained optimistic that the attacks will not affect talks but expressed concern that future bombings could occur. The talks are the final phase before devolution can occur. Economic demands from both sides will be presented, and an agreement is expected soon. This is one of the last chances the RIRA has to derail the process. The group will try to influence things in one of the only ways it knows how: by launching attacks. These latest bombings are part of a series of recent alleged RIRA attacks in Northern Ireland. The group is suspected of firebombing a B&Q hardware store in Coleraine in October and setting a series of fires at commercial areas in Newry in August. Prior to this latest escalation in violence, the RIRA had not launched an attack in more than a year. The fact that the three Nov. 1 attacks, as well as the others in the past few months, have been against soft targets and under the cover of night indicates that the RIRA's ability to launch devastating attacks has significantly degraded. All the targets have been larger chain stores that are easy to enter inconspicuously and plant a device without being detected. Though the damage from the three latest fires is extensive, no one was hurt in the attacks. Staff members in the Homebase store at the time of the explosion were able to escape easily without injuries. This is a far cry from past attacks by RIRA elements in which civilian and police targets were hit in both Northern Ireland and England. The most devastating of these attacks occurred in August of 1998 when a 500-pound car bomb exploded in the town of Omagh, Northern Ireland, killing 29 and injuring hundreds. The gruesomeness of the Omagh attack turned many RIRA sympathizers against the organization, and the group's ability to operate has been reduced ever since. Except for two attempted bombings in 2003 — one involving a 1,200-pound ammonium nitrate bomb found in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and the other targeting police responding to a fake bomb threat called in by RIRA members — RIRA activity has devolved into small-scale attacks and arson. As talks progress between Northern Ireland's political parties and the U.K. government, there is a good chance that the RIRA will continue launching these types of attacks. However, the RIRA lacks sufficient popular support to alter the political landscape in Northern Ireland.