Dissident republican group the Real IRA is the largest extortionist gang in the Republic, responsible for murders, attempted murders and pipe bomb attacks, according to senior garda sources.
The group is believed to be extorting millions of euros from targeting drug dealers -- as well as business people -- in Dublin, the midlands and Cork.
However, it has unable to establish an extortion operation in Limerick as the drugs gangs there are too ferocious, say gardai -- instead focusing on prostitution, including women trafficked here from eastern Europe.
In the past two weeks the 'republican' gang has been behind the shooting and injuring of a north Dublin man at a public house in Bettystown, Co Louth, and a grenade attack on the home of head shop owner Jim Bellamy in Killiney, Co Dublin. Two of Mr Bellamy's shops had previous been fire-bombed by the group.
They were also responsible for the shooting of three innocent men at the Players Lounge in Fairview, Dublin, on Sunday July 25, in which the doorman Wayne Barrett, 31, was left with critical head injuries and two other customers were seriously hurt.
Gardai are investigating the possibility that the same gang, based in north Dublin, was responsible for murdering one of Dublin's leading gangland figures, Eamon Dunne, at the Fassaugh House pub in Cabra last April.
The gang is also behind the widespread use of pipe bombs. Last year the Army Ordnance Corps dealt with 61 live bombs and 140 hoax bombs. So far this year they have dealt with 40 live bombs, mostly in Dublin. The dissidents are also selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community.
It appears the Real IRA in Dublin has aligned itself with a number of emerging drug gangs in the city which are taking over the trade formerly controlled by Eamon Dunne and his gang. Gardai have known for some time of links between former Provisionals -- now terming themselves Real IRA -- and elements of the gang run by Freddie Thompson. Thompson is residing abroad as he fears arrest under Justice Minister Dermot Ahern's tough new gang laws -- which gardai are also expected to use against the so-called republicans who they view as purely criminal.
Gardai say the Dublin Real IRA is also heavily involved in the pub and club bouncer business in which owners are forced to accept their members as doormen. These doormen then allow drug dealers in who pay the organisation so that they can operate in the premises.
In Cork drug dealer Gerard Stanton, 41, was shot dead at his home in Wilton in January because, gardai believe, he refused to pay an extortion demand. Gardai say that another young Dublin man, Darren Guerrine, was shot dead in February 2008 because he refused to pay protection money to the Real IRA. His murder was ordered by the Dublin Real IRA faction from Portlaoise Prison.
Evidence of how the organisation operates was given in a court case in the Special Criminal Court in July 2007 where a senior garda gave evidence that a young Carlow man had been sent on a mission to demand €10,000 from a local drug dealer and shoot him if he did not pay up. The court heard that the man, Patrick Dermody, had failed to carry out the shooting and that this had angered the local Real IRA leadership. Dermody was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for possession of a bomb and a sawn-off shotgun.
The 'republican' extortion business has been growing for years with alleged dissidents taking over rackets formerly run by the Provisional IRA in Dublin and elsewhere. The Continuity IRA in Dublin had been working with the gangster Martin Foley in his debt collection business -- however, gardai broke up the Continuity gang which had been providing muscle for Foley's operations. Foley now has no gangland or dissident republican support and is trading on his unmerited media reputation.
Another element of the Continuity group in the Dundalk and wider border area, run by a Dundalk man in his late 30s, is actively involved with eastern European mafias in the trafficking of young women into the sex trade here.
He works in tandem with the local Real IRA which runs one of the biggest cigarette smuggling businesses in Europe. This group has long established links with eastern European mafia dating back to the early 1980s when they were still in the Provisional IRA.
While the dissidents in the Republic are purely criminal the dissidents in the North are a mixture of both criminal and terrorist. Republican sources in Belfast, Derry and in the border area say the dissidents have recruited large numbers of young men, many of them drug users, and are heavily engaged in extorting money from drug dealers. In Belfast the dissidents are also directly involved in the drugs trade.
Meanwhile, the Northern dissidents continue to step up their terrorism campaign using bombs which security sources say are manufactured by the same people who made the Omagh bomb in August 1996. Among recent under-car bomb attacks was one that could have killed a Catholic PSNI member and her young son in Kilkeel, Co Down.
Despite claims by Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness that both the British and Irish governments are involved in talks with the dissidents, senior government sources say this is not the case.
An approach was made to dissident figures by a trade unionist last year in an attempt to get them to lay down their arms before the February deadline for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. The same figure had successfully negotiated the decommissioning of weapons by the Irish National Liberation Army and the Official Republican Movement -- formerly the Official IRA. However, sources close to this process said the dissidents rebuffed the advances.
Senior security sources say the dissidents remain splintered with no centralised leadership capable of negotiating. Attempts to unify the dissident republican factions ended in failure and acrimony earlier this year.