Irish Republican Army (IRA)

views updated May 18 2018

Irish Republican Army (IRA)

LEADER: Gerry Adams


The IRA was Ireland's preeminent nationalist paramilitary organization for more than a century, until its apparent disbandment and the destruction of its arms in 2005. Because of its ubiquity and because a number of splinter organizations have taken its name, confusion has sometimes existed over its exact role.


In its nine-decades-long history, the IRA assumed four main guises. These can roughly be characterized as the pre-revolutionary IRA (to 1921); post-revolutionary IRA (1921–1969); the IRA of the Troubles era (1969–1998); and the post-Good Friday Agreement IRA (1998–2005). In the course of this timeline, the IRA has also suffered a number of splits with other groups taking its name.

The initial origins of the IRA lie within the Anglo-Irish War (1916–21), which resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921. Irish nationalism had long been marked by its violence, and rebellions had previously broken out in 1798, 1803, and 1865. The 1916 uprising, which had occurred at the height of World War I, had been instigated primarily by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and Irish Volunteers. Although many of the events of the 1916 rising remain steeped in the lore of Irish history—namely, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and declaration of independence—it was largely a political and military failure and failed to rouse the support of those who lived in and around its epicenter of Dublin. Moreover, many of the IRB and Irish Volunteer leaders were either executed or interned following the revolt.

In October 1917, Sinn Fein, a small republican political party led by Eamon De Valera, set about reorganizing the defeated Irish Volunteers. Sinn Fein had been wrongly blamed for organizing the 1916 rising and, as a consequence, emerged with an enhanced reputation in nationalist circles. Moreover, it was a genuinely national organization with a presence not just in Dublin, but in the nationalist heartlands of the south and across Ireland's remote rural west.

This new paramilitary group—the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—was organized into hundreds of companies across Ireland. Following the end of World War I, Ireland exploded into full-scale insurrection, with a bloody war fought against the British authorities. This conflict was played out most viciously in Ireland's southern counties, where the British deployed a military police force known as the "Black and Tans," whose brutality saw large parts of the city of Cork burned, and even attracted the condemnation of King George V.

Indeed, it was partly due to the intervention of King George V that peace talks broke out in June 1921. These negotiations culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of December 1921. Under the terms of this treaty, Ireland was partitioned between the twenty-six predominantly Catholic counties of the south, which became the Irish Free State and the six mostly Protestant counties of the north, which became Northern Ireland and remained part of the United Kingdom.

Yet, the treaty split the IRA. Those members who supported it, led by Michael Collins, became the regular Irish National Army; however, many IRA members regarded the relinquishment of Northern Ireland as a betrayal of their cause and refused to recognize the Irish Free State, much less incorporate with its army. This marked the onset of the second phase of the IRA's history and the refusal to recognize the settlement created by Anglo-Irish Treaty would be its binding cause.

Because of this schism, the Irish Free State quickly descended into civil war, between the Irish National Army (i.e., pro-treaty IRA) and the IRA. During its year-long course, the Irish Civil War would claim more lives than the Anglo-Irish War had done and ended in defeat for the IRA.

Nevertheless, this defeat was never total and the remnants of the IRA still stubbornly insisted that the Irish Free State, which had been created by an "illegitimate" treaty, held no authority, and the group refused to recognize it or its institutions. Instead, it claimed that the IRA Army Executive was the real government of the still-existing Irish Republic proclaimed in 1918. These would remain important principles for the IRA for a further sixty years.

For nearly fifty years, this incarnation of the IRA would be a semi-dormant organization, manned by the principled and obstinate, and serving as a hindrance rather than a serious threat to both Irish and British governments. Its main extremist activities were a loose collaboration with Nazi Germany, which largely amounted to the passing on of intelligence during World War II, and border raids and sabotage during the 1950s and early 1960s.

By the late 1960s, the IRA was gripped by ideological splits and infighting. The third incarnation of the IRA came following a formal split in 1969 between the Marxist Official IRA and the Provisional IRA.

Despite its moniker, the Official IRA was a minor organization and played virtually no part in Northern Ireland's incipient "Troubles." It claimed responsibility for the bombing of British Army barracks in Aldershot, which killed six people, including a Catholic priest, and up to fifty other killings. But from 1973, the group adopted and stuck to a ceasefire, from which point it became almost completely dormant. A number of its members are known to have subsequently joined the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), or reunited with the Provisional IRA.

It was the Provisional IRA that carried on the traditions of the "old" IRA. It continued the longstanding tradition of claiming that the IRA Army Council was the provisional government of a thirty-two-county Irish Republic, and refused to recognize the legitimacy of either the British or Irish governments. As Northern Ireland descended into fully blown civil insurrection by the early 1970s, the IRA dramatically increased in size, influence, and prestige. Although it retained and increased large-scale support in parts of the Republic of Ireland, the focus of the IRA increasingly centered on Northern Ireland.

The modern IRA's most deadly period lies in the 1970s, a time when it became a highly sophisticated paramilitary organization, capable of attracting financial and military support from both the Irish Diaspora and sympathetic regimes, including Libya.

Its strategy was initially twofold during this time: to disrupt the civil and economic life of Northern Ireland and to attack British military installations and rival loyalist paramilitary organizations as a way of "defending" its people. A third strategy emerged from 1974 with a bombing campaign in mainland Britain. This was designed to sap political will to hold onto the province within Westminster and among the British population. It occasionally made attacks in the Republic of Ireland also.

From 1983, when Gerry Adams was elected President of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, there was a definite shift toward the seeking of a political—rather than military—solution to the future of Ireland. In 1986, Adams brought an end to the longstanding principle of abstentionism, allowing Sinn Fein to sit in the Irish Dáil (although not Westminster). In effect, this was recognition not just of the Irish government, but also a renunciation of the outmoded idea that the IRA was the "provisional government" of Ireland. The abandonment of abstentionism paved the way for negotiations—initially covert and highly tentative—with both Dublin and Westminster, and would eventually culminate in the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, which afforded a political solution for Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland's peace process was both protracted and marked by violence. Only in 1994 would the IRA call a ceasefire—which broke down after seventeen months—before ending violence with a second, more lasting ceasefire in 1997.



Born in West Belfast in 1948, Gerry Adams is the individual most responsible for the evolution of the IRA over the last four decades, from a semi-dormant and ideologically split group, to hardened nationalist extremists, and then into a modern political organization. Despite its links to organized crime, Sinn Fein/IRA has, since 1998, carved out an important role in Irish politics on both sides of Ireland's north-south border.

Adams joined Sinn Fein at the age of sixteen, and despite repeated denials, was a member of the Provisional IRA from 1969. He was an important part of the IRA leadership throughout this third phase of the organization's history and was twice interned by the British authorities during the 1970s, eventually rising to Northern Ireland Commander in 1979. At the same time, he built up a political profile, rising to the rank of Sinn Fein Vice President (1978) and President (1983).

It was as President that he slowly switched the focus of the IRA from military to political struggle. The ending of abstentionism in 1986 was more than just an issue of principle: it paved the way for negotiations with the governments of Dublin and Belfast. Although the peace process was protracted and accompanied by continued violence, the culmination in the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 marked a stunning breakthrough for Adams. Less than a decade earlier, the British media had not even been allowed to broadcast his voice by a government that regarded him a terrorist; now, he was regarded every bit a statesman as his fellow negotiators, which included Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

The conviction that the Good Friday Agreement affords the necessary mechanisms to eventually bring a united Ireland, combined with Sinn Fein's role in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has seen the party grow as a mainstream political organization on both sides of the Irish border. The IRA's renunciation of violence in 2005 can surely only accentuate this progress.

The IRA's pursuit of a political process was also not universally welcomed by its members. Following the end of abstentionism in 1986, Adams' predecessor as Sinn Fein leader, Ruairi O'Bradaigh, a former president, and Daithi O'Conouill, a former chief of staff, led a breakaway organization, Republican Sinn Fein, which formed its own military wing, the Continuity IRA (CIRA). This group was based on the principles of the IRA (i.e., refusal to acknowledge British and Irish governments; that it was the "true" government of a united Ireland, etc.) and linked to several terrorist acts in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1997–1998. In July 2004, the U.S. State Department designated the CIRA as a foreign terrorist organization. It also estimated that the CIRA had just fifty remaining activists, a reflection of the fact that it had barely been implicated in any extremist acts for nearly five years.

IRA 'Has Destroyed All Its Arms'

The IRA has put all of its weapons beyond use, the head of the arms decommissioning body has said.

General John de Chastelain made the announcement at a news conference accompanied by the two churchmen who witnessed the process.

"We are satisfied that the arms decommissioned represent the totality of the IRA's arsenal."

Welcoming the move, Prime Minister Tony Blair said IRA decommissioning had been "finally accomplished."

The general said: "We have observed and verified events to put beyond use very large quantities of arms which we believe include all the arms in the IRA's possession."

He said they had handled every gun and made an inventory of the weapons.

The arms included a full range of ammunition, rifles, machine guns, mortars, missiles, handguns, explosives, explosive substances and other arms including all the categories described in the estimates provided by the U.K. and Irish security services, he said.

"Our new inventory is consistent with these estimates. We are satisfied that the arms decommissioning represents the totality of the IRA's arsenal."

The IRA announced an end to its armed campaign in July.

The republican organisation said it would follow a democratic path ending more than 30 years of violence.

General de Chastelain's report confirming that IRA decommissioning had been completed was given to the British and Irish governments earlier on Monday.

He described IRA decommissioning as "an important milestone towards the completion of its task to achieve decommissioning by all paramilitary groups."

The churchmen who witnessed the process were Catholic priest Father Alec Reid and ex-Methodist president Rev Harold Good.

Their statement said: "The experience of seeing this with our own eyes, on a minute-to-minute basis, provided us with evidence so clear and of its nature so incontrovertible that at the end of the process it demonstrated to us—and would have demonstrated to anyone who might have been with us—that beyond any shadow of doubt, the arms of the IRA have now been decommissioned."

The churchmen said they regarded IRA decommissioning as an "accomplished act."

General de Chastelain, Andrew Sens and Tauno Nieminen—the commissioners of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning—have been in Ireland overseeing the latest round of decommissioning since the beginning of September.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said the completion of decommissioning was "an important step in the transition from conflict to peace in Northern Ireland."

"The true importance of today is that these weapons can never again be used to inflict suffering and create more victims," he added.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said that it was a "landmark development" and appealed to unionists not to "underestimate the importance" of the move.

"The weapons of the IRA are gone, and are gone in a manner which has been verified and witnessed," he said.

Secretary of State Peter Hain said the announcement was the first step on the road to devolution being restored in Northern Ireland.

"After all the bitter agony of the victims who have suffered, deaths and families torn apart, people will want to be certain, not just for a few weeks but for some months that actually this is being delivered," he said.

"So far so good, today's statement was a landmark one which deals with the IRA's arsenal in a very credible way witnessed by independent people—but we have a long time to go to see whether we can actually get self government back on the road."

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams admitted the announcement would be "difficult for many republicans" but it was a "very brave and bold leap."

Mr. Adams said the British and Irish governments must now implement the Good Friday Agreement, with progress needed on outstanding issues including equality, policing, human rights, victims and on-the-run prisoners.

However, unionists are unhappy there has been no photographic evidence of decommissioning and reacted with skepticism to the report.

Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley said there had been no transparent verification of IRA decommissioning in the announcement.

He said the church witnesses had been agreed by the IRA and as such could not be considered "independent."

Without a photographic proof, an inventory and details on how the weapons were destroyed questions remained, said Mr. Paisley.

"This afternoon the people of Northern Ireland watched a programme which illustrates more than ever the duplicity and dishonesty of the two governments and the IRA."

However, his deputy, east Belfast MP Peter Robinson said they accepted a significant amount of IRA weapons had been "put beyond use."

Mr. Robinson said they accepted it had been "a more substantial event than the previous events put together."

In a statement the Ulster Unionist Party said it regretted that the move had "failed to maximise public confidence."

"It is imperative that the movement's criminal empire be dismantled as well," it said.

Source: BBC News, 2005

The CIRA had, however, long been outdone for notoriety by the Real IRA (RIRA). This was formed in late 1997 by several leading members of the Provisional IRA, and it adopted similar principles to those of the CIRA. Its aim to disrupt the emergent peace process reached an early and horrific denouement in the town of Omagh in August 1998, when a massive car bomb killed twenty-nine people. The carnage created outrage and dissipated much of what little support it may have held among most Irish people and led to a huge crackdown by the British and Irish governments, leaving it an almost totally marginalized and ineffective organization.

Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the IRA has assumed its fourth incarnation, acting as an organization that straddles the worlds of both politics and organized crime. Sinn Fein has taken up an important role within Northern Ireland's political institutions and it has also emerged as a mid-sized political force within the Irish Republic, where it had previously been a marginal political party. However, the IRA has continued to be linked to criminality, and former paramilitaries have divvied up Northern Ireland for control of drug-dealing, prostitution, and extortion rackets. It has also been strongly implicated in bank robberies. The proceeds of a £25 million raid on Belfast's Northern Bank in December 2004 was believed to be for an IRA "retirement" fund.

There has also been a palpable sense that its members can still act with impunity. This manifested itself most notoriously in early 2005, when a Catholic man, Robert McCartney, was murdered by former paramilitaries in a Belfast bar, and the IRA both covered up the crime and obstructed the police investigation.

Nevertheless, overt sectarian violence has declined inexorably since the IRA assumed its fourth incarnation. Its willingness to engage in politics saw it officially renounce violence in July 2005. Two months later, the head of Northern Ireland's arms decommissioning body announced himself satisfied that the IRA had put its entire arsenal beyond use, an act that seemingly brought an end to the group's long history as an armed organization.


The IRA was a paramilitary organization committed to the creation of a united Ireland. For most of its history it existed on the premise that it was the legitimate government of a united Ireland and as such refused to recognize either the British or Irish governments. As such, it believed it would achieve its aims through armed struggle. Under the leadership of Gerry Adams (since 1983) it adopted a more political approach, resulting in a ceasefire (1994–96; and 1997–) and the Good Friday Agreement. This evolution into a political organization culminated in a renunciation of violence and the complete decommissioning of its weaponry in 2005.


Formation of the IRA out of the remnants of the Irish Volunteers.
Anglo-Irish Agreement gives way to a split between the pro-treaty IRA (that became the regular Irish Army) and the anti-treaty IRA.
Split between the Marxist Official IRA and the Provisional IRA. The latter group continue the IRA tradition, while the former quickly fade.
The creation of Republican Sinn Fein, a splinter of the main political party, leads to the formation of the Continuity IRA.
Split in IRA leadership over the peace process leads to the creation of the Real IRA, another splinter group.
The Good Friday Agreement accentuates the evolution of Sinn Fein/IRA into a mainstream political organization, although the IRA continues to be dogged by claims of underworld involvement.
IRA renounces violence and calls for its members to give up its arms.
Northern Ireland's arms decommissioning body announces itself satisfied that the IRA has destroyed its arms.


The IRA's call for its members to lay down arms in July 2005 had been welcomed, but treated with skepticism by many commentators. The decommissioning of its weapons two months later was regarded as a welcome surprise, although most newspapers added a hint of caution. The Guardian wrote: "Not so long ago on the streets of the Bogside in Derry nationalist graffiti warned that the IRA would surrender 'not an ounce, not a bullet.' The slogan has been proved wrong and the optimists who believed the peace process meant something have been proved right. The IRA has delivered, if not peace—the Northern Bank raid, the killing of Robert McCartney and the harassment of his family and friends show peace has not arrived—then at least a sense that it may again be possible … Talks, and powersharing, must follow. But for all the monumental importance of yesterday's announcement, getting there will still require patience."

The right-wing Daily Telegraph, normallythe most skeptical of Britain's national newspapers, declared the decommissioning of weapons a "welcome change in the nature of the IRA," but added its own slant on events. "No longer is it a revolutionary force, needing bombs and missiles to terrorise the British state into conceding a United Ireland," the newspaper declared. "Instead, it has become what most of its members always were a criminal gang of racketeers, for whose purposes light arms are enough."


The IRA's decommissioning of arms in September 2005 apparently marked the last act in its violent, frequently sectarian armed struggle for a united Ireland, and the "throwing in" of its lot with the political process. Its supporters add that this marks the maturing of the terrorist organization, a realization that the ballot box is a more potent weapon than the barrel of a gun.

However, if nothing else, the IRA is an organization that has historically shown an appetite for change: first, an anti-imperial revolutionary organization; next, a small group of fanatical but disorganized republicans; thirdly, an insidious and potent terrorist organization; and finally, a mainstream political organization (albeit one with links to organized crime). Taking that view, skeptics might have good reason to fear that it could one day return to violence if its foray into politics fails to work out. Moreover, its failure to disavow its criminal links merely adds to the aura of suspicion that lingers over the organization. Only time will tell if the IRA's "doves" pervade over its more hawkish elements.



McKittrick, David, and David McVeigh. Making Sense of the Troubles. London: Penguin, 2003.

Moloney, Ed. Secret History of the IRA. London: Penguin, 2003.

Taylor, Peter. The Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.

Web sites

Northern Ireland Office. "Homepage of the Decommissioning Commission." 〈〉 (accessed October 24, 2005).


Real Irish Republican Army

Provisional Irish Republican Army

Continuity Irish Republican Army

Irish Republican Army

views updated May 23 2018

Irish Republican Army


The term Irish Republican Army was first used during the Fenian raids in Canada during the 1860s. Today the term is used in concert with the outbreaks of violence throughout Ireland, and especially in Northern Ireland, called the Troubles. The Irish Republican Army has a much longer history than that begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s, having been instrumental in the Easter Uprising in 1916. The Troubles refers to the sectarian conflict in Ireland (especially Northern Ireland) that began in the late 1960s.

The immediate postfamine years in Ireland were a period of escalating unrest between the Irish and their English occupiers. In 1916 the conflicts came to a head when a group of charismatic Irish began a revolt in Dublin. The focal point of the revolt was the General Post Office, now a shrine to their efforts, but the entire city, especially the area in and around OConnell Street and Parnell Square, was involved in the violent armed conflict. In the end, the leaders of the revolt were arrested, put in Kilmainham Gaol, and many were executed. In the aftermath of the uprising and their executions, Michael Collins (18901922) and others organized guerrilla forces against the English Black and Tans. These forces became known as the Irish Volunteers.

In 1919 the Dáil Éireann or First Dáil (the government of Ireland) recognized the Irish Volunteers as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and they in turn fought the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921 against the English. At the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, the IRA split into protreaty forces (which became known as the Old IRA, government forces, or regulars) and antitreaty forces (Republicans or irregulars). The antitreaty forces continued to use the name Irish Republican Army. In 1922 the two sides entered into the Irish Civil War, with the regulars led by Michael Collins on the side of the new Irish Free State, which still recognized England, and the Republicans led by Liam Lynch (18931923) refusing to recognize the new state or the partitioning of Northern Ireland. Collins was later assassinated by IRA members for his participation in the Civil War and support of the Free State government.

Éamon de Valera (18821975), a member of the antitreaty group Sinn Féin, eventually came to power as leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, currently the largest political party in Ireland. The IRA remained active in the Republic until the 1960s, when it split again to become the Official IRA (OIRA) and the Provisional IRA (PIRA). The Provisionals were most active in Northern Ireland and split with the Official IRA due to what they recognized as the OIRAs lack of protection for nationalist communities in the North. This split came in 1969 as violence between sectarian communities and Republican and Unionist groups began to escalate. This is often recognized as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the North, but the underlying reasons remain tension between Unionists (those who support English rule) and Republicans (those who support unity with the Republic of Ireland and devolution from England).

Bloody Sunday, a violent clash between protesters and British and Northern Irish troops in Derry in 1972, was a flashpoint in the sectarian conflicts. Troops opened fire upon the crowd of protesters killing thirteen, all of whom were unarmed. There are conflicting reports from those present that suggest either a gun was fired from the protesters side toward the troops or that the troops were commanded to fire on the agitated crowd. In the days and months that followed, extreme violence in the form of shootings, bombings, murders, and arson engulfed the North. The PIRA carried out many of the killings and are suspected to be the perpetrators of specific acts of violence carried out against the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the British army, among them the bombings of police stations and barracks and the targeting of pubs frequented by the RUC and the army. They are also accused of a number of attacks in Dublin and throughout the United Kingdom. In over thirty years of violence in Northern Ireland, more than three thousand people have died as a result of the conflict.

Since the mid-1990s, a process of political devolution has been under way in Northern Ireland. The peace process, as it is known, has been opposed by many, including the Real IRA, a splinter group of the PIRA that broke ranks in 1997. The Real IRA, considered to be a paramilitary group, has held out against the decommissioning of weapons as proposed in the Hume-Adams report. In 1993 the Hume-Adams initiative agreed to by John Hume, leader of the SDLP (the Norths nationalist party) and Gerry Adams was a directive to begin an IRA cease-fire and to include Sinn Féin in the peace talks. This in turn led to a series of cease-fires and began the peace process. Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, entered the Dáil Éireann and now participates in the political decision-making process.

SEE ALSO Peace Process; Revolution


Behan, Brendan. 1965. Confessions of an Irish Rebel. London: Hutchinson.

Coogan, Tim Pat. 2002. The IRA. Rev. ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Coogan, Tim Pat. 2002. The Troubles: Irelands Ordeal and the Search for Peace. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

English, Richard. 2003. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moloney, Ed. 2002. A Secret History of the IRA. New York: Norton.

Toolis, Kevin. 1995. Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRAs Soul. London: Picador.

Kelli Ann Costa

Irish Republican Army (IRA)

views updated May 29 2018

Irish Republican Army (IRA)

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) originated from the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist militia established in 1913. Following Sinn Féin's establishment of a national parliament, Dáil Éireann, in 1919 and its declaration of an Irish republic, the Volunteers became known as the Irish Republican Army. Under the resourceful leadership of Michael Collins, from 1919 to 1921 the IRA fought an effective guerrilla-warfare campaign against British rule in Ireland. In July 1921, when both sides had fought to a stalemate, a truce was agreed to allow Sinn Féin and the British government to negotiate a settlement.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was signed in December 1921 and narrowly accepted by the Dáil in January 1922, split the republican movement. The treaty offered a significant degree of autonomy for southern Ireland but entailed dominion rather than republican status and required the swearing of a loyalty oath to the British crown. The partition of the unionist-dominated six northeastern counties (constituted as Northern Ireland in 1920) was not a central issue. Despite broad public support for the treaty, many Volunteers who had sworn an oath to the Republic viewed the compromise as a betrayal. Led by Michael Collins, much of the IRA's leadership supported the treaty, but many republicans, particularly those from the areas most active in the preceding war, opposed it in the Irish Civil War (1922–1923). The antitreaty IRA also drew support from rural areas with a tradition of land agitation and opposition to authority. After a short but bitter conflict the IRA dumped its arms and suspended its violent campaign.

Despite defeat, Irish republicans rejected the Irish Free State and professed loyalty to the republican Dáil, which was composed of antitreaty Sinn Féin deputies. The relationship between the military and political wings of the republican movement remained strained as many IRA figures blamed politicians for the events preceding the Civil War. Even Eamon de Valera, the leading antitreaty figure, was regarded with suspicion because of his earlier support for a settlement that fell short of establishing an independent republic. At the 1925 IRA convention, amid rumors that de Valera might enter the Free State Dáil, the IRA withdrew its allegiance to the republican Dáil and vested authority in its own executive. It restructured itself as a secret army under the command of a seven-member army council whose principal enemy was the Irish Free State rather than Britain or Northern Ireland. Abstention from parliament, suspicion of politics, and commitment to physical force became the characteristics of militant republicanism in independent Ireland.

Although too weak to militarily threaten the Free State, the IRA engaged in periodic acts of violence, notably the assassination of the deputy head of government, Kevin O'Higgins, in 1927. The ensuing spiral of IRA violence and government coercion destabilized the state, while the IRA's increasingly socialist rhetoric also provoked concern. The IRA's political initiative, Saor Éire (1931), the first of several opportunistic attempts to harness social and economic grievances to republican objectives, aroused clerical and public disapproval and the subsequent "red scare" was used by the protreaty government to suppress the IRA.

The election of Fianna Fáil (a constitutional republican party which maintained links with the IRA despite entering the Dáil) in 1932 proved a greater threat to the IRA, as the party which comprised much of the Civil War antitreaty leadership demonstrated the possibility of achieving republican objectives through peaceful means. De Valera's reforms, such as scrapping the loyalty oath and the 1922 constitution, reconciled all but the most militant republicans to the southern state government and increased dissension within the IRA. In 1934 the IRA's left-wing minority, led by Peadar O'Donnell, split to form the Republican Congress, a short-lived socialist organization. In 1936, following several murders, de Valera banned the IRA. A disastrous bombing campaign in England, begun in 1939, soon petered out. The outbreak of World War II offered the IRA an opportunity to ally with Germany, but despite some IRA-German contact, the main consequence of the emergency (as World War II was known in Ireland) was de Valera's ruthless suppression of the IRA with much public support. Draconian legislation, including the introduction of internment and the death penalty, crushed the IRA in southern Ireland. Subsequent IRA activism would focus on the North.

The Provisional IRA

The IRA's border campaign (1956–1962) appeared to confirm the ineffectiveness of physical force and led to a process of politicization as figures such as IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding urged republican participation in the Catholic civil-rights movement. However, the resurgence of sectarian violence in the summer of 1969 revived tensions between the left-wing Dublin leadership led by Goulding and northern republicans who emphasized the IRA's role as armed defenders of the Catholic community. The leadership's decision to support a left-wing united front and end abstention from the Dáil led to a split in December 1969. The dissidents, led by Seán MacStiofáin, established a rival "provisional" IRA and a rival Sinn Féin (under Ruairí Ó Bradaigh) to continue the armed struggle. The "provisional" and "official" movements coexisted uneasily, but the original IRA's Marxism and ambiguity toward physical force resulted in further splits (including one that resulted in the formation of the extremist Irish National Liberation Army in 1975) and eventual terminal decline.

The early 1970s saw the escalation of the IRA's armed campaign which, despite ruthless tactics, won support in republican areas, partly due to the Unionist government's failed security policy that resulted in mass searches, curfews, internment, and "Bloody Sunday" (when the British army killed thirteen unarmed Catholic civilians). Bloody Sunday prompted direct rule from London in 1972 and several years of intense violence. A brief cease-fire in 1975 produced no results, the IRA leadership offering a politically unrealistic "Brits out" ultimatum, and a greatly weakened IRA resumed the armed campaign. Military setback was again followed by internal debate and calls for politicization. The subsequent "long war" strategy, developed by the rising northern IRA leadership, advocated the development of a broad political base but, crucially, not at the expense of armed struggle. The IRA turned to a cell system of organization that rendered British penetration more difficult by limiting the amount of information which volunteers who were turned by security forces could provide. The 1981 hunger strikes, the culmination of a lengthy struggle between republican prisoners and the British prison authorities, appeared to end in defeat after the deaths of ten prisoners, but the public sympathy it generated provided the first evidence of a potentially strong political base for Sinn Féin, which won seats in the British parliament and the Irish Dáil.

The "armalite and ballot box" strategy produced some gains in the 1980s, but the IRA faced increasing pressure from the penetration of informers, "supergrass" trials (the mass conviction of IRA volunteers based on the evidence of a former member), and the effective deployment of Britain's Special Air Service (SAS). The strategy also produced dissension as the younger northern leadership (led by Gerry Adams, who became Sinn Féin president in 1983) began dumping Sinn Féin's historical baggage. In 1986 Ó Bradaigh resigned from the party to protest the ending of abstention from the Dáiland founded the splinter Republican Sinn Féin, which would later be associated with the dissident Continuity IRA, who oppose the "peace process."

Talks that began in 1988 between the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader, John Hume, and Gerry Adams (along with secret British-IRA contacts) raised hopes for peace. Over the next six years, republicans modified their demands and formed a closer understanding with northern nationalists, the southern government, and Bill Clinton's White House. The 1993 Anglo-Irish Downing Street Declaration, setting out the principles underpinning any settlement (most importantly, the validity of the aspiration to national self-determination and the necessity for unionist consent), was followed by an IRA cease-fire in 1994. Following the British government's reluctance to initiate further talks, the IRA returned to violence seventeen months later. A second cease-fire in 1997 was followed by all-party negotiations that produced the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. Since then, the resulting power-sharing executive and associated institutions have functioned fitfully, constrained by the IRA's failure to fully decommission and cease all operations, disagreements over policing, dissident republican violence, and substantial unionist hostility to the agreement itself. The IRA's cease-fire has, with some transgressions, held, and Sinn Féin continues to expand, for the first time out-polling the Social Democratic and Labour Party as the largest nationalist party in the June 2001 British general election.

SEE ALSO Adams, Gerry; Civil War; Collins, Michael; Decommissioning; Hunger Strikes; Loyalist Paramilitaries after 1965; Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Politics: Nationalist Politics in Northern Ireland; Special Powers Act; Ulster Politics under Direct Rule; Primary Documents: Proclamation Issued by IRA Leaders at the Beginning of the Civil War (29 June 1922); Republican Cease-Fire Order (28 April 1923); On Community Relations in Northern Ireland (28 April 1967); Irish Republican Army (IRA) Cease-Fire Statement (31 August 1994); Text of the IRA Cease-Fire Statement (19 July 1997)


CAIN: Conflict Archive on the Internet. Available at

Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA. 1995 edition.

English, Richard. Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State, 1925–37. 1994.

O'Brien, Brendan. The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin. 1999 edition.

Patterson, Henry. The Politics of Illusion: A Political History of the IRA. 1989.

Taylor, Peter. Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein. 1998 edition.

Fearghal McGarry

Irish Republican Army (IRA)

views updated May 11 2018

Irish Republican Army (IRA)

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) also operates as, or is known as, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA or "Provos").

The IRA formally became a terrorist group in 1969 as the clandestine armed wing of Sinn Fein, a legal political movement dedicated to removing British forces from Northern Ireland and unifying Ireland. The IRA originated with a Marxist orientation and was organized into small, tightly knit cells under the leadership of the Army Council. The IRA has been observing a cease-fire since 1997 and in October 2001, took the historic step of putting an unspecified amount of arms and ammunition "completely beyond use." The International Commission on Decommissioning characterized the step as a significant act of decommissioning. The IRA retains the ability to conduct operations. Its traditional activities have included bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, punishment beatings, extortion, smuggling, and robberies. Bombing campaigns were conducted against train and subway stations and shopping areas on mainland Britain. Targets included senior British government officials, civilians, police, and British military targets in Northern Ireland.

The IRA has, at a minimum, several hundred members, plus several thousand sympathizersdespite the possible defection of some members to the Real IRA (RIRA). The IRA operates in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, and Europe. During its history, the IRA has received aid from a variety of groups and countries and considerable training and arms from Libya and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The IRA is suspected of receiving funds, arms, and other terrorist related materiel from sympathizers in the United States.



CDI (Center for Defense Information) Terrorism Project. CDI Fact Sheet: Current List of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. March 27, 2003. <> (April 17, 2003).

Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook, 2002. <> (April 16, 2003).

Taylor, Francis X. U.S. Department of State. "Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001." Annual Report: On the Record Briefing. May 21, 2002 <> (April 17, 2003).

U.S. Department of State. Annual reports. <> (April 16, 2003).


Terrorism, Philosophical and Ideological Origins
Terrorist and Para-State Organizations
Terrorist Organization List, United States
Terrorist Organizations, Freezing of Assets

Irish Republican Army

views updated May 21 2018

Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Irish Volunteers, formed in 1913/14 and reorganized along conventional military command lines after the Easter Rising, became known as the IRA from 1919. During the Anglo-Irish War, 1919–21, it became the dominant military arm of the Dáil government, and fought a limited successful guerrilla war until stalemate was acknowledged by the truce of July 1921. Divided over the Anglo-Irish treaty of December 1921, the minority formed the Provisional Government/Free State Army, while the majority armed against the new state in the civil war 1922–3. Guerrilla warfare tactics were then less successful, and defeat was implicit in the cease-fire of April 1923. The raison d'être of the organization remained because of partition and the allegiance to the British crown. For four decades, the IRA was undecided whether to concentrate on a campaign against the border, or against British and Free State/Republic government, or to focus on social and economic issues. It waged an unsuccessful border campaign 1956–61, and shifted into being a Marxist pressure group. The outbreak of violence in Derry and Belfast from 1969 found the movement wanting in its traditional protective role for the catholic minority: graffiti claimed IRA stood for ‘I ran away’. A split occurred between the Belfast-based traditional nationalist Provisional IRA and the Marxist Official IRA, with the latter shrinking and splintering into smaller republican organizations. The Provisional IRA waged a high-profile terror campaign, which was instrumental in the collapse of Stormont in 1972 and in power-sharing initiatives, but it lost support and momentum as a result of an unsuccessful truce 1974/5, though continuing operations in the province and in Britain. Gaining considerable support from the hunger strike crisis of 1981, the movement adopted a more political strategy with Sinn Fein's Armalite and ballot policy. The decision of the IRA to agree to a cease-fire in the 1990s led to the ‘Real’ IRA taking over the mantle of violence. A Northern Ireland Assembly was established and Sinn Fein ministers appointed, but the reluctance of the IRA to begin serious decommissioning of arms led to the dissolution of the Assembly in 2003.

Michael Hopkinson

Irish Republican Army

views updated May 29 2018

Irish Republican Army (IRA) Guerrilla organization dedicated to the reunification of Ireland. Formed in 1919, the IRA waged guerrilla warfare against British rule. Some members (‘irregulars’) rejected the Anglo-Irish settlement of 1921, fighting a civil war until 1923. In 1970, the organization split into an ‘Official’ wing (which emphasized political activities), and a ‘Provisional’ wing (committed to armed struggle). Thereafter, the Provisional IRA became committed to terrorist acts in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. It declared a cease-fire in 1994, but in 1996 resumed its campaign. Another cease-fire was declared in 1997. The timing of the decommissioning of IRA weapons is a major issue in the peace process.


views updated May 29 2018

IRA abbreviation for the Irish Republican Army, the military arm of Sinn Fein, aiming for union between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The IRA was formed during the struggle for independence from Britain in 1916–21.


views updated Jun 11 2018

IRA Abbreviation of Irish Republican Army

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