As many as 5,000 weapons may still be concealed in secret 'doomsday' bunkers set up by the tiny 'Official' IRA group that was allegedly disbanded decades ago, the Sunday Independent has learned.
Senior republican sources said the arsenal - which consists mainly of never-used assault rifles and medium machineguns - was supplied to the leadership of the terror group in the 1980s by the North Korean government and the old Soviet KGB and were hidden in specially built bunkers.
Only a handful of top people in the organisation knew the whereabouts of the weapons bunkers.
The weapons were to be used if there was an outbreak of major Protestant-Catholic conflict in the North, in which event the dumps would be opened and the guns distributed for the 'defence' of Catholic areas. The idea behind the project stemmed from what was seen as the IRA's failure to protect Catholic working class areas of Belfast from invasion by Protestant mobs at the outset of the Troubles.
Sources said the 'Doomsday' arsenal was assembled and 'buried' in places where they could be quickly accessed in the event of all-out sectarian war. One source told the Sunday Independent there was an awareness of one bunker containing 500 rifles within easy reach of a Catholic area of Belfast, and there was said to be '10 times' more further accessible in more distant dumps.
The 'doomsday' bunker secret was kept "very tight" within a handful of Official IRA figures, some of whom have since died, and secret locations of the dumps may go to the grave with the remaining few who know of their whereabouts.
One of the figures said to have knowledge of some of the weapons was Dessie 'The Devil' O'Hagan, who died in Downpatrick, Co Down earlier this month at the age of 81.
Another was Tomas MacGiolla, who was a senior Official IRA figure, leader of the Workers' Party and TD who died in February 2010 aged 86.
The Officials, as they were known, had close ties to Communist Bloc countries including the Soviet Union, East Germany and North Korea who were responsible for supplying weapons and funds to the shadowy group.
Official IRA members travelled to the Soviet Union and North Korea for training and were also supplied with funds and material from the KGB's secret assassination directorates. Sources told the Sunday Independent that Soviet-manufactured poisons were supplied to the Officials and used in a number of cases to assassinate people accused of being 'enemies of the Movement'.
The Official IRA and its political wings went through various splits and changes over the decades and a core group in Northern Ireland along with members from the Republic split away at about the time of the mid-1990s ceasefires by the other republican and loyalist groups.
An ex-Official IRA group styling itself as the Official Republican Movement (ORM) broke away in the 1990s and became the first of the groups in the North to publicly decommission their weapons, supplying images of this event to the media in February 2010.
Sources said the reason the weapons were never decommissioned was to do with the fact that there was a policy in place of denying the military wing, which became known as "Organisation 'B'", actually existed. "If it (the Official IRA) didn't exist, it couldn't have any weapons and couldn't decommission them," one source told the Sunday Independent.
The Official IRA declared a ceasefire in the early 1970s as the Troubles, driven by the Provisional IRA, increasingly turned into an ethnic conflict in the North. Before that the Official IRA was at the forefront in gun battles with the British Army and loyalists, mainly in Belfast.
After its ceasefire, the group was involved in killings and maintained a unit dedicated to carrying out major armed robberies to fund the increasingly political direction the movement was taken.
It was also involved in the biggest currency counterfeiting operation ever undercovered by garda in the 1980s and carried this on in conjunction with contacts in the KGB and East German Stasi up to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Former Officials said the secret weapons bunkers are "beyond time", and that if they still exist should be opened and the guns safely disposed of.