|Ideology Irish republicanism|
Strength ~10,000 over 30 years
|Leaders IRA Army Council|
|Active 1969– (on ceasefire from 1997)|
Originated as Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Founded December 1969, United Kingdom
Opponents British Army, Royal Ulster Constabulary
Similar Real Irish Republican Army, Irish National Liberatio, British Army, Official Irish Republican Army, MI5
The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA or PIRA) was an Irish republican paramilitary organisation that sought to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and to bring about an independent republic encompassing all of Ireland. It was the biggest and most active republican paramilitary group during the Troubles. It saw itself as the successor to the original IRA and called itself simply the Irish Republican Army, or Óglaigh na hÉireann in Irish. It was also widely referred to as such by others.
- Overview of strategies
- Regional command
- Active service units
- Initial phase
- 1975 ceasefire
- The Long War
- Peace process
- End of the armed campaign
- Weaponry and operations
- Other activities
- Sectarian attacks
- Alleged involvement in crime
- Killing of alleged informers
- Conflict with other republican paramilitaries
- Numerical strength
- Electoral and popular support
- Support from other countries and organisations
The Provisional IRA emerged in December 1969, following a split in the republican movement. The Troubles had begun a year before, when a largely Catholic, nonviolent civil rights campaign was met with violence from both Ulster loyalists and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, culminating in the August 1969 riots and deployment of British troops. The IRA initially focused on defence, but it began an offensive campaign in 1971 (see timeline). The IRA's primary goal was to force the British to negotiate a withdrawal from Northern Ireland. It used guerrilla tactics against the British Army and RUC in both rural and urban areas. It also carried out a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland and England against what it saw as political and economic targets.
The IRA called a final ceasefire in July 1997, after Sinn Féin was re-admitted into the Northern Ireland peace talks. It supported the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in 2005 it disarmed under international supervision. Several splinter groups have emerged, including the Continuity IRA after the Provisional's initial 1994 ceasefire, and the Real IRA after the final 1997 ceasefire, both of which are still active today in the low-level dissident Irish republican campaign.
Overview of strategies
The IRA's initial strategy was to use force to cause the collapse of the government of Northern Ireland and to inflict enough casualties on British forces that the British government would be forced by public opinion in Britain to withdraw from the region. This policy involved recruitment of volunteers, increasing after the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident in which the British armed forces killed unarmed protesters, and launching attacks against British military and economic targets. The campaign was supported by arms and funding from Libya and from some Irish American groups. The IRA agreed to a ceasefire in February 1975, which lasted nearly a year before the IRA concluded that the British were drawing them away from military action without offering any guarantees in relation to the IRA's goals (as well as launching an intelligence offensive), and hopes of a quick victory receded. As a result, the IRA launched a new strategy known as "the Long War". This saw them conduct a war of attrition against the British and increased emphasis on political activity, via the political party Sinn Féin.
The success of the 1981 Irish hunger strike in mobilising support and winning elections led to the Armalite and ballot box strategy, with more time and resources devoted to political activity. The abortive attempt at an escalation of the military part of that strategy led republican leaders increasingly to look for a political compromise to end the conflict, with a broadening dissociation of Sinn Féin from the IRA. Following negotiations with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and secret talks with representatives of both the British and Irish governments, the IRA ultimately called a ceasefire in 1994 on the understanding that Sinn Féin would be included in political negotiations for a settlement. When the British government, dependent on Ulster Unionist Party votes at Westminster, then demanded the disarmament of the IRA before it allowed Sinn Féin into multiparty talks, the IRA called off its ceasefire in February 1996. The British demand was quickly dropped after the May 1997 general election in the UK. The IRA ceasefire was then reinstated in July 1997 and Sinn Féin was admitted into all-party talks, which produced the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The IRA's armed campaign, primarily in Northern Ireland but also in England and mainland Europe, caused the deaths of approximately 1,800 people. The dead included around 1,100 members of the British security forces, and about 640 civilians. The IRA itself lost 275–300 members and an estimated 10,000 imprisoned at various times over the 30-year period.
On 28 July 2005, the IRA Army Council announced an end to its armed campaign, stating that it would work to achieve its aims using "purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means", and shortly afterwards completed decommissioning. In September 2008, the nineteenth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission stated that the IRA was "committed to the political path" and no longer represented "a threat to peace or to democratic politics", and that the Army Council was "no longer operational or functional". The organisation remains classified as a proscribed terrorist group in the UK and as an illegal organisation in the Republic of Ireland. Two small groups split from the Provisional IRA, the Continuity IRA in 1986, and the Real IRA in 1997. Both reject the Good Friday Agreement and continue to engage in paramilitary activity.
On 26 July 2012, it was announced that some former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army were merging with the Real Irish Republican Army, other independent republican paramilitary groups and the vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (but not with the Continuity Irish Republican Army) into a unified formation known simply as the "Irish Republican Army". This new IRA group is estimated by Police Service of Northern Ireland intelligence sources to have between 250 and 300 active militants and many more supporting associates.
The Provisional IRA was organised hierarchically. At the top of the organisation was the IRA Army Council, headed by the IRA Chief of Staff.
All levels of the organisation were entitled to send delegates to IRA General Army Conventions (GACs). The GAC was the IRA's supreme decision-making authority. Before 1969, GACs met regularly. Since 1969, there have only been three, in 1970, 1986, and 2005, owing to the difficulty in organising such a large gathering of an illegal organisation in secret.
The GAC in turn elected a 12-member IRA Executive, which selected seven volunteers to form the IRA Army Council. For day-to-day purposes, authority was vested in the Army Council which, as well as directing policy and taking major tactical decisions, appointed a Chief of Staff from one of its number or, less often, from outside its ranks.
The Chief of Staff would appoint an adjutant general as well as a General Headquarters (GHQ), which consisted of heads of the following departments:
The IRA was divided into a Northern Command, which operated in the nine Ulster counties as well as the border counties of Leitrim and Louth, and a Southern Command, operating in the rest of Ireland. The Provisional IRA was originally commanded by a leadership based in Dublin. However, in 1977, parallel to the introduction of cell structures at local level, command of the "war-zone" was given to the Northern Command. According to Ed Moloney, these moves at re-organisation were the idea of Ivor Bell, Gerry Adams and Brian Keenan.
The IRA referred to its ordinary members as volunteers (or óglaigh in Irish). Up until the late 1970s, IRA volunteers were organised in units based on conventional military structures. Volunteers living in one area formed a company as part of a battalion, which could be part of a brigade, although many battalions were not attached to a brigade.
IRA brigades usually followed county lines, which were sometimes subdivided (especially when they included major urban areas). The Belfast Brigade had three battalions, in the west, north and east of the city. In the early years of the Troubles, the IRA in Belfast expanded rapidly; in August 1969, the Belfast Brigade had just 50 active members - by the end of 1971, it had 1,200 members, giving it a large but loosely controlled structure.
The Derry Battalion became the Provisional IRA Derry Brigade in 1972 after a rapid increase in membership following Bloody Sunday when 1 PARA killed 13 unarmed demonstrators at a civil rights march. The Derry Brigade also controlled parts of northern County Londonderry and northeast County Donegal.
County Armagh had four battalions, two very active ones in South Armagh and two less active unit in North Armagh. For this reason the Armagh IRA unit is often referred to as the South Armagh Brigade. Similarly, the Tyrone/Monaghan Brigade, which operated from around the Border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is often called the East Tyrone Brigade. The leadership structure at battalion and company level was the same: each had its own commanding officer, quartermaster, explosives officer and intelligence officer. There was sometimes a training officer or finance officer.
Active service units
From 1973, the IRA started to move away from the larger conventional military organisational principle owing to its security vulnerability. A system of two parallel types of unit within an IRA brigade was introduced in place of the battalion structures. Firstly, the old "company" structures were used for tasks such as "policing" nationalist areas, intelligence-gathering, and hiding weapons. These were essential support activities. However, the bulk of actual attacks were the responsibility of a second type of unit, the active service unit (ASU). To improve security and operational capacity, these ASUs were smaller, tight-knit cells, usually consisting of five to eight members. The ASU's weapons were controlled by a brigade's quartermaster. It was estimated that in the late 1980s the IRA had roughly 300 members in ASUs and about another 450 serving in supporting roles.
The exception to this reorganisation was the South Armagh Brigade, which retained its traditional hierarchy and battalion structure and used relatively large numbers of volunteers in its actions. South Armagh didn't have the same problems with security that other brigades had.
The IRA's Southern Command, located in the Republic of Ireland, consists of a Dublin Brigade and a number of smaller units in rural areas. These were charged mainly with the importation and storage of arms for the Northern units and with raising finances through robberies and other means.
In August 1969, a confrontation between Catholic residents of the Bogside and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Derry following an Apprentice Boys of Derry march led to a large communal riot now referred to as the Battle of the Bogside – three days of fighting between rioters throwing stones and petrol bombs on one side, and police who saturated the area with CS gas and other unionists on the other.
Protests organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in support of the Bogsiders were held elsewhere in the region, sparking retaliation by Protestant mobs; the subsequent burning, damage to property and intimidation, largely against the minority community, forced 1,800 people (mostly Catholics) from their homes in Belfast in what became known as the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969, with over 200 Catholic homes being destroyed or requiring major repairs. A number of people were killed on both sides, some by the police. The Irish Republican Army had been poorly armed and its defence of Catholic-majority areas from Ulster loyalists, which had been considered one of its traditional roles since the 1920s, was seen by many as inadequate.
Veteran republicans were critical of the IRA's Dublin leadership which, for political reasons, had refused to prepare for aggressive action in advance of the violence. On 24 August Joe Cahill, Seamus Twomey, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Billy McKee and several other future Provisional leaders came together in Belfast intending to remove the Belfast leadership and turn back to traditional militant republicanism. Although the pro-Goulding commander Billy McMillen stayed in command, he was told it was only for three months and he was not to have any communication with the IRA's Dublin based leadership.
Traditional republicans formed the "Provisional" Army Council in December 1969, after an IRA convention was held at Knockvicar House in Boyle, County Roscommon. The two main issues were the acceptance of the "National Liberation Strategy" and a motion to end abstentionism and to recognise the British, Irish and Northern Ireland parliaments. While the motion on the "National Liberation Strategy" was passed unanimously the motion on abstentionism was only passed by 28 votes to 12. Opponents of this change argued strongly against the ending of abstentionism, and when the vote took place, Seán Mac Stíofáin, present as IRA Director of Intelligence, announced that he no longer considered that the IRA leadership represented republican goals. However, there was no walkout. Those opposed, who included Mac Stíofáin and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, refused to go forward for election to the new IRA Executive.
While others canvassed support throughout Ireland, Mac Stíofáin was a key person making a connection with the Belfast IRA under Billy McKee and Joe Cahill, who had refused to take orders from the IRA's Dublin leadership since September 1969, in protest at their failure to defend Catholic areas in August. Nine out of thirteen IRA units in Belfast sided with the Provisionals in December 1969, roughly 120 activists and 500 supporters. The first "Provisional" Army Council was composed of Seán Mac Stíofáin, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Paddy Mulcahy, Sean Tracey, Leo Martin, and Joe Cahill. They issued their first public statement on 28 December 1969, stating:
We declare our allegiance to the 32 county Irish republic, proclaimed at Easter 1916, established by the first Dáil Éireann in 1919, overthrown by forces of arms in 1922 and suppressed to this day by the existing British-imposed six-county and twenty-six-county partition states.
The Provisional IRA issued all its public statements under the pseudonym "P. O'Neill" of the "Irish Republican Publicity Bureau, Dublin". According to Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, it was Seán Mac Stiofáin, as chief of staff of the IRA, who invented the name. However, under his usage, the name was written and pronounced according to Irish orthography and pronunciation as "P. Ó Néill". According to Danny Morrison, the pseudonym "S. O'Neill" was used during the 1940s.
The Sinn Féin party split along the same lines on 11 January 1970, when a third of the delegates walked out of the Ard Fheis in protest at the party leadership's attempt to force through the ending of abstentionism, despite its failure to achieve a two-thirds majority vote of delegates required to change the policy. Despite the declared support of that faction of Sinn Féin, the early Provisional IRA was extremely suspicious of political activity, arguing rather for the primacy of armed struggle.
What would become the Provisional IRA received arms and funding from the Fianna Fáil-led Irish government in 1969, resulting in the 1970 Arms Crisis in which criminal charges were pursued against two former government ministers and others. Roughly £100,000 was donated by the Irish government to "Defence Committees" in Catholic areas and, according to historian Richard English, "there is now no doubt that some money did go from the Dublin government to the proto-Provisionals".
The Provisionals maintained the principles of the pre-1969 IRA; they considered both British rule in Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Ireland to be illegitimate, insisting that the Provisional IRA's Army Council was the only valid government, as head of an all-island Irish Republic. This belief was based on a series of perceived political inheritances which constructed a legal continuity from the Second Dáil (see also Irish republican legitimatism).
By 1971, the Provisionals had inherited most of the existing IRA organisation in the north, as well as the more militant IRA members in the rest of Ireland. In addition, they recruited many young nationalists from the north, who had not been involved in the IRA before but had been radicalised by the violence that broke out in 1969. These people were known in republican parlance as "sixty niners", having joined after 1969. The Provisional IRA adopted the phoenix as symbol of the Irish republican rebirth in 1969. One of its slogans was "out of the ashes rose the Provisionals".
Following the violence of August 1969, the IRA began to arm and train to protect nationalist areas from further attack. After the Provisionals' split from the Official IRA, the Provisional IRA began planning for offensive action against what it viewed as British occupation.
The Official IRA were opposed to such a campaign because they felt it would lead to sectarian conflict, which would defeat their strategy of uniting the workers from both sides of the sectarian divide. The IRA Border Campaign in the 1950s had avoided actions in urban centres of Northern Ireland to avoid civilian casualties and probable resulting sectarian violence. The Provisional IRA, by contrast, was primarily an urban organisation, based originally in Belfast and Derry.
The Provisional IRA's strategy was to use force to cause the collapse of the government of Northern Ireland and to inflict such casualties on the British forces that the British government would be forced by public opinion to withdraw from Ireland. According to journalist Brendan O'Brien, "the thinking was that the war would be short and successful. Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stíofáin decided they would 'escalate, escalate and escalate' until the British agreed to go". This policy involved recruitment of volunteers and carrying out attacks on British forces, as well as mounting a bombing campaign against economic targets. In the early years of the conflict, IRA slogans spoke of, "Victory 1972" and then "Victory 1974". Its inspiration was the success of the "Old IRA" in the Irish War of Independence (1919–1922), which also relied on British public opinion to achieve its aims. In their assessment of the IRA campaign, the British Army would describe the years 1970–72 as the "insurgency phase".
The British government held secret talks with the IRA leadership in 1972 to try and secure a ceasefire based on a compromise settlement, after the events of Bloody Sunday led to an increase in IRA recruitment and support. The IRA agreed to a temporary ceasefire from 26 June to 9 July. In July 1972, Seán Mac Stíofáin, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Ivor Bell, Seamus Twomey, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met a British delegation led by William Whitelaw. The republicans refused to consider a peace settlement that did not include a commitment to British withdrawal, a retreat of the British Army to its barracks, and a release of republican prisoners. The British refused and the talks broke up.
At this time the IRA brought out the Éire Nua (New Ireland) policy, which advocated an all-Ireland federal republic, with decentralised governments and parliaments for each of the four historic provinces of Ireland.
By the mid-1970s, the hopes of the IRA leadership for a quick military victory were receding and the British military was unsure of when it would see any substantial success against the IRA. Secret meetings between Provisional IRA leaders Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Billy McKee with British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees secured an IRA ceasefire which began in February 1975. The IRA initially believed that this was the start of a long-term process of British withdrawal, but later came to the conclusion that the British were unwilling and/or unable to make concessions in areas they deemed crucial. Critics of the IRA leadership, most notably Gerry Adams, felt that the ceasefire was disastrous for the IRA, leading to infiltration by British informers, the arrest of many activists and a breakdown in IRA discipline resulting in sectarian killings and a feud with fellow republicans in the Official IRA. At this time, the IRA leadership, short of money, weapons and members, was on the brink of calling off the campaign. However, the ceasefire was ended in January 1976 instead.
The "Long War"
Thereafter, the IRA evolved a new strategy which they called the "Long War". This underpinned IRA strategy for the rest of the Troubles and involved the re-organisation of the IRA into small cells, an acceptance that their campaign would last many years before being successful and an increased emphasis on political activity through Sinn Féin. A republican document of the early 1980s states: "Both Sinn Féin and the IRA play different but converging roles in the war of national liberation. The Irish Republican Army wages an armed campaign... Sinn Féin maintains the propaganda war and is the public and political voice of the movement". The 1977 edition of the Green Book, an induction and training manual used by the IRA, describes the strategy of the "Long War" in these terms:
- A war of attrition against enemy personnel [British Army] based on causing as many deaths as possible so as to create a demand from their [the British] people at home for their withdrawal.
- A bombing campaign aimed at making the enemy's financial interests in our country unprofitable while at the same time curbing long term investment in our country.
- To make the Six Counties... ungovernable except by colonial military rule.
- To sustain the war and gain support for its ends by National and International propaganda and publicity campaigns.
- By defending the war of liberation by punishing criminals, collaborators and informers.
Confidential documents released on 30 December 2008 from the British state archives show that the IRA leadership proposed a ceasefire and peace talks to the British government in 1978. The British refused the offer. Prime Minister James Callaghan decided that there should be "positive rejection" of the approach on the basis that the republicans were not serious and "see their campaign as a long haul". Republic of Ireland state documents from the same period say that the IRA had made a similar offer to the British the previous year. An Irish Defence Forces document, dated 15 February 1977, states that "It is now known that feelers were sent out at Christmas by the top IRA leadership to interest the British authorities in another long ceasefire." The Éire Nua policy was discontinued by the Army Council in 1979 but remained Sinn Féin policy until 1982, reflecting the sequence in which the old leadership of the republican movement were being sidelined.
IRA prisoners convicted after March 1976 did not have Special Category Status applied in prison. In response, more than 500 prisoners refused to wear prison clothes. This activity culminated in the 1981 Irish hunger strike, when seven IRA and three Irish National Liberation Army members starved themselves to death in pursuit of political status. The hunger strike leader Bobby Sands and Anti H-Block activist Owen Carron were elected to the British Parliament, and two other protesting prisoners were elected to the Dáil. In addition, there were work stoppages and large demonstrations all over Ireland in sympathy with the hunger strikers. More than 100,000 people attended the funeral of Sands, the first hunger striker to die.
After the success of IRA hunger strikers in mobilising support and winning elections on an Anti H-Block platform in 1981, republicans increasingly devoted time and resources to electoral politics, through the Sinn Féin party. Danny Morrison summed up this policy at a 1981 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis (annual meeting) as a "ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other".
The success of the 1981 Irish hunger strike in mobilising support and winning elections led to what was referred to by Danny Morrison as, "the Armalite and ballot box strategy" with more time and resources devoted to political activity. The perceived stalemate along with British government's hints of a compromise and secret approaches in the early 1990s led republican leaders increasingly to look for a political agreement to end the conflict, with a broadening dissociation of Sinn Féin from the IRA. Following negotiations with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and secret talks with British civil servants, the IRA ultimately called a ceasefire in 1994 on the understanding that Sinn Féin would be included in political talks for a settlement. When the British government then demanded the disarmament of the IRA before it allowed Sinn Féin into multiparty talks, the organisation called off its ceasefire in February 1996. The renewed bombings caused severe economic damage, with the Manchester bombing and the Docklands bombing causing approximately £800 million in combined damage. After the ceasefire was reinstated in July 1997, Sinn Féin was admitted into all-party talks, which produced the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The IRA's armed campaign, primarily in Northern Ireland but also in England and mainland Europe, caused the deaths of approximately 1,800 people. The dead included around 1,100 members of the British security forces, and about 630 civilians. The IRA itself lost 275–300 members, of an estimated 10,000 total over the 30-year period. Between 1970 and 2005, the IRA had detonated 19,000 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the United Kingdom, an average of one every 17 hours for three and a half decades, arguably making it "the biggest terrorist bombing campaign in history".
According to author Ed Moloney, the IRA made an attempt to escalate the conflict with the so-called "Tet Offensive" in the 1980s, which was reluctantly approved by the Army Council and did not prove successful. On the other hand, public speeches from two Northern Ireland Secretaries of State, Peter Brooke and Patrick Mayhew hint that, given the cessation of violence, a political compromise with the IRA was possible. Gerry Adams entered talks with John Hume, the leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1993, and secret talks were also conducted since 1991 between Martin McGuinness and a senior MI6 officer, Michael Oatley. Thereafter, Adams increasingly tried to disassociate Sinn Féin from the IRA, claiming they were separate organisations and refusing to speak on behalf of the IRA. Within the Republican Movement (the IRA and Sinn Féin), the new strategy was described by the acronym "TUAS", meaning either "Tactical Use of Armed Struggle" or "Totally Unarmed Strategy".
The IRA ceasefire in 1997 formed part of a process that led to the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. One aim of the Agreement is that all paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland cease their activities and disarm by May 2000. In October 1997, the US stopped designating the IRA as a terrorist organisation.
Calls from Sinn Féin led the IRA to commence disarming in a process that was monitored by Canadian General John de Chastelain's decommissioning body in October 2001. However, following the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing government in 2002, which was partly triggered by allegations that republican spies were operating within Parliament Buildings and the Civil Service, the IRA temporarily broke off contact with General de Chastelain.
In December 2004, attempts to persuade the IRA to disarm entirely collapsed when the Democratic Unionist Party, under Ian Paisley, insisted on photographic evidence. Justice Minister Michael McDowell (in public, and often) insisted that there would need to be a complete end to IRA activity.
At the beginning of February 2005, the IRA declared that it was withdrawing from the disarmament process, but in July 2005 it declared that its campaign of violence was over, and that transparent mechanisms would be used, under the de Chastelain process, to satisfy the Northern Ireland communities that it was disarming totally.
End of the armed campaign
On 28 July 2005, the IRA Army Council announced an end to the armed campaign, stating that it would work to achieve its aims solely by peaceful political means. The Army Council stated that it had ordered volunteers to dump all weapons and to end all paramilitary activity. It also announced that the IRA would complete the process of disarmament as quickly as possible.
This was not the first time that an organization calling itself the IRA had issued orders to dump arms. After its defeat in the Irish Civil War in 1924 and at the end of its unsuccessful Border Campaign in 1962, the IRA Army Council issued similar orders. However, this was the first time that an IRA had voluntarily decided to dispose of its arms. Some authors, like Patrick McCarthy, Peter Taylor and Brendan O'Brien concluded that, unlike previous IRA campaigns, the provisionals were not defeated.
In September 2005, international weapons inspectors supervised the full disarmament of the IRA. On 26 September, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) announced that "the totality of the IRA's arsenal" had been decommissioned. The IRA invited two independent witnesses to view the secret disarmament work: Catholic priest Father Alec Reid and Protestant minister Reverend Harold Good. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), complained that the witnesses were not unbiased, because they were appointed by the IRA itself. Nationalists saw his comments as reflecting his opposition to nationalists in government.
Since then, there have been occasional claims in the media that the IRA had not decommissioned all of its weaponry. In response to such claims, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) stated in its tenth report that the IRA had decommissioned all weaponry "under its control". It said that if any weapons had been kept, they would have been kept by individuals and against IRA orders.
There have also been claims that the IRA is still active and has carried out punishment shootings (see Chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions (2000–09)). In August 2008, the The Sunday Times quoted a "senior Garda intelligence officer" as saying that the IRA was being maintained "in shadow form"; that it had recruited in recent years, still had weapons and was still capable of carrying out attacks. PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan, said it was unlikely the IRA as a whole would formally disband in the foreseeable future.
In September 2008, the Independent Monitoring Commission stated in its nineteenth report that the IRA was "committed to the political path" and was no longer "a threat to peace or to democratic politics". It concluded that the IRA as an organization was being allowed to wither away and was "beyond recall": it had disbanded its military departments, stopped recruiting or training members, lost its military capability, and the Army Council was "no longer operational". The report also said that the IRA is not involved in any criminal activity, but that some members have engaged in criminal activity without the sanction or support of the organization.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said in 2011: "The war is over. The IRA is gone. The IRA embraced, facilitated and supported the peace process. When a democratic and peaceful alternative to armed struggle was created the IRA left the stage." In 2014 Adams said: "The IRA is gone. It is finished". However, the Assessment on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland in October 2015 concluded that the Provisional IRA, while committed to peace, continues to exist in a reduced form.
In February 2015, the Garda Commissioner stated that Gardaí have no evidence that the IRA's military structure remains or that the IRA is engaged in crime.
In August 2015, the PSNI Chief Constable stated that the IRA no longer exists as a paramilitary organization. He said that some of its structure remains, but that the group is committed to following a peaceful political path and is not engaged in criminal activity or directing violence. However, he added that some members have engaged in criminal activity or violence for their own ends. The statement was in response to the recent killings of two former IRA members. In May, former IRA commander Gerard Davison was shot dead in Belfast. He had been involved in Direct Action Against Drugs and it is believed he was killed by an organized crime gang. Three months later, former IRA member Kevin McGuigan was also shot dead in Belfast. It is believed he was killed by the group Action Against Drugs, in revenge for the Davison killing. The Chief Constable believed that IRA members collaborated with Action Against Drugs, but without the sanction of the IRA. In response, the UK government commissioned the Independent Assessment of Paramilitary Organisations.
The organization remains classified as a proscribed terrorist group in the UK and as an illegal organisation in the Republic of Ireland. Two small groups split from the IRA, the Continuity IRA in 1986, and the Real IRA in 1997. Both reject the Good Friday Agreement and continue to engage in paramilitary activity.
Weaponry and operations
In the early days of the Troubles the IRA was very poorly armed, mainly with old World War II weaponry such as M1 Garands and Thompson submachine guns, but starting in the early 1970s it procured large amounts of modern weaponry from such sources as supporters in the United States, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and arms dealers in Europe, America, the Middle East and elsewhere. The Libyans supplied the IRA with the RPG-7.
In the first years of the conflict, the IRA's main activities were providing firepower to support nationalist rioters and defending nationalist areas from attacks. The IRA gained much of its support from these activities, as they were widely perceived within the nationalist community as being defenders of Irish nationalist and Roman Catholic people against aggression.
From 1971–1994, the IRA launched a sustained offensive armed campaign that mainly targeted the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), and economic targets in Northern Ireland. In addition, some IRA members carried out attacks against Protestant civilians.
The IRA was chiefly active in Northern Ireland, although it took its campaign to England and mainland Europe. The IRA also targeted certain British government officials, politicians, judges, establishment figures, British Army and police officers in England, and in other areas such as the Republic of Ireland, West Germany and the Netherlands. By the early 1990s, the bulk of the IRA activity was carried out by the South Armagh Brigade, well known through its sniping operations and attacks on British Army helicopters. The bombing campaign principally targeted political, economic and military targets, and approximately 60 civilians were killed by the IRA in England during the conflict.
It has been argued that this bombing campaign helped convince the British government (who had hoped to contain the conflict to Northern Ireland with its Ulsterisation policy) to negotiate with Sinn Féin after the IRA ceasefires of August 1994 and July 1997.
On 31 August 1994, the IRA declared an indefinite ceasefire. However, from February 1996 until July 1997, the IRA called off its 1994 ceasefire because of its dissatisfaction with the state of negotiations. They re-instated the ceasefire in July 1997, and it has been in operation since then.
The IRA decommissioned all of its remaining arms between July and September 2005. The decommissioning of its weaponry was supervised by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD). Among the weaponry estimated (by Jane's Information Group) to have been destroyed as part of this process were:
Having compared the weapons destroyed with the British security forces' estimates of the IRA weaponry, and because of the IRA's full involvement in the process of destroying the weapons, the IICD arrived at their conclusion that all IRA weaponry has been destroyed.
Since the process of decommissioning was completed, unnamed sources in MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have reported to the press that not all IRA arms were destroyed during the process. This claim remains unsubstantiated so far. In its report dated April 2006 the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) stated that it had no reason to disbelieve the IRA or to suspect that it had not fully decommissioned. It believed that any weaponry that had not been handed in had been retained locally and against the wishes of the IRA leadership. The Russian and British Intelligence services alleged that during the decommissioning process the IRA secretly purchased a consignment of 20 Russian special forces AN-94 rifles in Moscow.
In mid-July 2013, the Gardaí displayed arms and explosives (Semtex) recently recovered from dissident republicans in the Dublin area. The Gardaí believe this Semtex to have come from the Libyan connection back in the 1980s and therefore should have been decommissioned.
Apart from its armed campaign, the IRA has also been involved in many other activities.
The IRA publicly condemned sectarianism and sectarian attacks. However, some IRA members did carry out sectarian attacks. Of those killed by the IRA, Sutton classifies 130 (about 7%) of them as sectarian killings of Protestants. Unlike loyalists, the IRA denied responsibility for sectarian attacks and the members involved used covernames, such as "Republican Action Force". They claimed that their attacks on Protestants were "retaliation" for attacks on Catholics. Many in the IRA opposed these sectarian attacks, but others deemed them effective in preventing sectarian attacks on Catholics.
Some unionists allege that the IRA took part in "ethnic cleansing" of the Protestant minority in rural border areas, such as Fermanagh. Many local Protestants allegedly believed that the IRA tried to force them into leaving. However, most Protestants killed by the IRA in these areas were members of the security forces, and there was no exodus of Protestants.
Alleged involvement in crime
To fund its campaign, the IRA was allegedly involved in criminal activities such as robberies, counterfeiting, protection rackets, kidnapping for ransom, fuel laundering and cigarette smuggling. The IRA also raised funds through donations and by running legitimate businesses such as taxi firms, social clubs, pubs and restaurants. It is estimated that, by the 1990s, the IRA needed £10.5 million a year to operate.
IRA supporters argue that the IRA's "securing of funds by extralegal methods is justified as a means to achieve a political goal. Unlike crimes committed for personal gain, IRA operations are considered strategic attacks against an oppressive state". However, this activity allowed the British Government to portray the IRA as no more than a criminal gang.
It was estimated that the IRA carried out 1,000 armed robberies in Northern Ireland, mostly of banks and post offices. It was accused of involvement in the biggest bank raid in Irish history—the 2004 Northern Bank robbery—when £26.5 million was stolen from the Northern Bank in Belfast city centre. The PSNI, the Independent Monitoring Commission and the British and Irish governments all accused the IRA of involvement. It is suggested that the IRA needed the money to pay pensions to its volunteers, and to ensure that hardliners stuck with the peace strategy. The IRA denied involvement, however.
Generally, the IRA was against drug dealing and prostitution, "both for 'moral' reasons and because it would be unpopular within its own communities". The Chief of the RUC's Drugs Squad, Kevin Sheehy, said "the Provisional IRA did its best to stop volunteers from becoming directly involved [in drugs]" and noted one occasion when an IRA member caught with a small amount of cannabis was "disowned and humiliated" in his local area. The IRA often targeted drug dealers. Many were given punishment shootings or banished, and some were killed. However, there are claims the IRA "licensed" certain dealers to operate and forced them to pay protection money.
Speaking in 2005, Gerry Adams said "There is no place in republicanism for anyone involved in criminality". However, he went on to say "we refuse to criminalise those who break the law in pursuit of legitimate political objectives".
In 2008, the Independent Monitoring Commission stated that the IRA was no longer involved in criminality, but that some members have engaged in criminality for their own ends, without the sanction or support of the IRA.
During the conflict, the IRA took on the role of policing in some Catholic/nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Many Catholics/nationalists did not trust the official police force—the Royal Ulster Constabulary—and saw it as biased against their community. The RUC found it difficult to operate in certain nationalist neighbourhoods and only entered in armoured convoys, due to the threat of attack from rioters and the IRA. In these neighbourhoods, many residents expected the IRA to act as a policing force, and such policing "provided the IRA a certain propaganda value". The IRA also sought to minimize contact between residents and the RUC, because residents might pass on information or be forced to become a police informer. The IRA set up arbitration panels that would adjudicate and investigate complaints from locals about criminal or 'anti-social' activities. Those responsible for minor offences would be given a warning, be made to compensate the offendee, or be made to do community work. Those responsible for more serious and repeat offences could be given a punishment beating or kneecapping, or be banished from the community.
The IRA's vigilantism has been repeatedly condemned as "summary justice". However, on several occasions the British authorities have recognized the IRA's policing role. In January 1971, the IRA and British Army held secret talks aimed at stopping persistent rioting in Ballymurphy. It was agreed that the IRA would be responsible for policing there, but the agreement was short-lived. During the 1975 ceasefire, the government agreed to the setting up of 'incident centres' in nationalist areas. They were staffed by Sinn Féin members and were to deal with incidents that might endanger the truce. Residents went there to report crime as well as to make complaints about the security forces. The incident centres were seen by locals as 'IRA police stations' and gave some legitimacy to the IRA as a policing force.
The IRA also dealt with sex crimes. The offenders were usually given a punishment shooting and banished under threat of execution. In recent years, there have been complaints over the IRA's handling of sex crimes, especially those by its own members. Political opponents accused the IRA and Sinn Féin of a coverup. The Sinn Féin leader apologized to victims who were "let down" by the IRA and admitted it "was ill-equipped to deal with such matters".
Killing of alleged informers
The IRA took a hard line against anyone believed to be an "informer" – i.e. secretly passing information about IRA activity to British forces. The IRA regarded them as traitors and a threat to the organization and lives of its members. Suspected informers were dealt with by the IRA's Internal Security Unit (ISU). It carried out an investigation, interrogated the suspect and passed judgement. IRA members who confessed to being informers were "executed" with a shot to the head. Civilian informers were regarded as "collaborators" and were usually either killed or exiled. The IRA killed 59 alleged informers, about half of them IRA members and half of them Catholic civilians. The bodies of alleged informers were usually left in public as a warning to others. Twelve, however, were secretly buried and became known as "the Disappeared".
One particularly controversial killing of an alleged informer was that of Jean McConville. A Catholic civilian and widowed mother-of-ten, her body was secretly buried and not found until thirty years later. The IRA has since issued a general apology, saying it "regrets the suffering of all the families whose loved ones were killed and buried by the IRA".
The original IRA, as well as loyalist paramilitaries, also had a policy of killing alleged informers.
Conflict with other republican paramilitaries
The IRA has also feuded with other republican paramilitary groups such as the Official IRA in the 1970s and the Irish People's Liberation Organisation in the 1990s.
Leading Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) member Joseph O'Connor was shot dead in Ballymurphy, west Belfast on 11 October 2000. Claims have been made by O'Connor's family and people associated with the RIRA that he was killed by the IRA as the result of a feud between the organisations, but Sinn Féin denied the claims. No-one has been charged with his killing.
This is a summary. For a detailed breakdown of casualties caused by and inflicted on the IRA see Provisional IRA campaign 1969-1997#Casualties
The IRA was responsible for more deaths than any other organisation during the Troubles. Two detailed studies of deaths in the Troubles, the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN), and the book Lost Lives, differ slightly on the numbers killed by the IRA and the total number of conflict deaths. According to CAIN, the IRA was responsible for at least 1,707 deaths, about 48% of the total conflict deaths. Of these, at least 1,009 (about 59%) were members or former members of the British security forces, while at least 508 (about 29%) were civilians. According to Lost Lives (2006 edition), the IRA was responsible for 1,768 deaths, about 47% of the total conflict deaths. Of these, 934 (about 52%) were members of the British security forces, while 639 (about 36%) were civilians (including 61 former members of the security forces). The civilian figure also includes civilians employed by British forces, politicians, members of the judiciary, and alleged criminals and informers. Most of the remainder were loyalist or republican paramilitary members; including over 100 IRA members accidentally killed by their own bombs or shot for being security force agents or informers. Overall, the IRA was responsible for 87–90% of the total British security force deaths, and 27–30% of the total civilian deaths in the conflict.
A little under 300 IRA members were killed in the Troubles. In addition, roughly 50–60 members of Sinn Féin were killed. However, many more IRA volunteers were imprisoned than killed. Journalists Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop estimate in their book The Provisional IRA that roughly 8,000 people passed through the ranks of the IRA in the first 20 years of its existence, many of them leaving after arrest (senior officers are required to surrender their post after being arrested), retiring from the armed campaign or "disillusionment". They give 10,000 as the total number of past and present IRA members at that time.
The IRA is a proscribed organisation in the United Kingdom under the Terrorism Act 2000 and an unlawful organisation in the Republic of Ireland under the Offences Against the State Acts. Harold Wilson's secret 1971 meeting with IRA leaders with the help of John O'Connell angered the Irish government; Garret FitzGerald wrote 30 years later that "the strength of the feelings of our democratic leaders ... was not, however, publicly ventilated at the time" because Wilson was a former and possible future British prime minister. Members of IRA are tried in the Republic of Ireland in the Special Criminal Court. In Northern Ireland, the IRA are referred to as terrorists by the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party. On the island of Ireland, the largest political party to state that the IRA is not a terrorist organisation is Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin is widely regarded as the political wing of the IRA, but the party insists that the two organisations are separate.
Peter Mandelson, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, contrasted the post-1997 activities of the IRA with those of Al-Qaeda, describing the latter as "terrorists" and the former as "freedom fighters" (though Mandelson subsequently denied this sentiment). The IRA prefer the terms freedom fighter, soldier, or volunteer. The US Department of State lists them in the category 'other selected terrorist groups also deemed of relevance in the global war on terrorism.' The organisation has also been described as a "private army" by a number of commentators and politicians.
The IRA described its actions throughout "The Troubles" as a military campaign waged against the British Army, the RUC, other security forces, judiciary, loyalist politicians and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, England and Europe. The IRA considers these groups to be all part of the same apparatus. As noted above, the IRA seeks to draw a direct descendancy from the original IRA and those who engaged in the Irish War of Independence. The IRA sees the previous conflict as a guerrilla war which accomplished some of its aims, with some remaining "unfinished business".
A process called "Criminalisation" was begun in the mid-1970s as part of a British strategy of "Criminalisation, Ulsterisation, and Normalisation". The policy was outlined in a 1975 British strategy paper titled "The Way Ahead", which was not published but was referred to by Labour's first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees, and came to be the dominant British political theme in the conflict as it raged into the 1980s.
Another categorisation avoids the terms "guerrilla" or "terrorist" but does view the conflict in military terms. The phrase originated with the British military strategist Frank Kitson who was active in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s. In Kitson's view, the violence of the IRA represented an "insurrection" situation, with the enveloping atmosphere of belligerence representing a "low intensity conflict" – a conflict where the forces involved in fighting operate at a greatly reduced tempo, with fewer combatants, at a reduced range of tactical equipment and limited scope to operate in a military manner.
Membership of the IRA remains illegal in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but IRA prisoners convicted of offences committed before 1998 have been granted conditional early release as part of the Good Friday Agreement. In the United Kingdom a person convicted of membership of a "proscribed organisation", such as the IRA, still nominally faces imprisonment for up to 10 years.
In the early to mid-1970s, the numbers recruited by the IRA may have reached several thousand, but these were reduced when the IRA re-organised its structures from 1977 onwards. An RUC report of 1986 estimated that the IRA had 300 or so members in Active Service Units and up to 750 active members in total in Northern Ireland. This does not take into consideration the IRA units in the Republic of Ireland or those in Britain, continental Europe, and throughout the world. In 2005, the then Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell told the Dáil that the organisation had "between 1,000 and 1,500" active members.
According to the book The Provisional IRA (by Eamon Mallie and Patrick Bishop), roughly 8,000 people passed through the ranks of the IRA in the first 20 years of its existence, many of them leaving after arrest, "retirement" or disillusionment. In later years, the IRA's strength has been somewhat weakened by members leaving the organisation to join hardline splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. According to former Irish Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, these organisations have little more than 150 members each.
According to Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly speaking in an interview with Rowan Hand in October 2013 he said about 30,000 members passed through the ranks of the IRA between 1969 - 1997 with most leaving after a short period of time.
Electoral and popular support
The popular support for the IRA's campaign in the Troubles is hard to gauge, given that Sinn Féin, the IRA's political wing, did not stand in elections until the early 1980s. Most nationalists in Northern Ireland voted for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) until 2001. After the 1981 hunger strike, Sinn Féin mobilised large electoral support and won 105,000 votes, or 43% of the nationalist vote in Northern Ireland, in the 1983 UK general election, only 34,000 votes behind the SDLP. However, by the 1992 general election, the SDLP won 184,445 votes and four seats to Sinn Féin's 78,291 votes and no seats. In the 1993 Local District Council Elections in Northern Ireland, the SDLP won 136,760 votes to Sinn Féin's 77,600 votes.
Few Protestant voters voted for Sinn Féin. In 1992, many of them voted for SDLP West Belfast candidate Joe Hendron rather than a unionist candidate to make sure Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin lost his seat in the constituency.
The IRA enjoyed some popular support in the Republic of Ireland in the early 70s. However, the movement's appeal was hurt badly by bombings such as the killing of civilians attending a Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph in Enniskillen in 1987 (Remembrance Day bombing), and the death of two children when a bomb exploded in Warrington, which led to tens of thousands of people demonstrating on O'Connell Street in Dublin to call for an end to the IRA's campaign. In the 1987 Irish General Election, they won only 1.7% of the votes cast. They did not make significant electoral gains in the Republic until after the IRA ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. By the 2011 Irish general election Sinn Féin's proportion of the popular vote had reached 9.9 percent.
Sinn Féin now has 29 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (out of 108), four Westminster MPs (out of 18 from Northern Ireland) and 23 Republic of Ireland TDs (out of 166).
Support from other countries and organisations
The IRA have had contacts with foreign governments and other illegal armed organisations.
Libya has been the biggest single supplier of arms and funds to the IRA, donating large amounts: three shipments of arms in the early 1970s and another three in the mid-1980s, the latter reputedly enough to arm two regular infantry battalions.
The IRA has also received weapons and logistical support from Irish Americans in the United States. Apart from the Libyan aid, this has been the main source of overseas IRA support. American support has been weakened by the War against Terrorism, and the fallout from the events of 11 September 2001.
In the United States in November 1982, five men were acquitted of smuggling arms to the IRA after they claimed the Central Intelligence Agency had approved the shipment, although the CIA denied this. There are allegations of contact with the East German Stasi, based on the testimony of a Soviet defector to British intelligence Vasili Mitrokhin. Mitrokhin revealed that although the Soviet KGB gave some weapons to the Marxist Official IRA, it had little sympathy with the Provisionals. The IRA has received some training and support from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1977, the Provisionals received a 'sizeable' arms shipment from the PLO, including small arms, rocket launchers and explosives, but this was intercepted at Antwerp after the Israeli intelligence alerted its European counterparts. According to Dr Mir Ali Montazam, one-time first secretary at the Iranian embassy, Iran played a key part in funding the IRA during the 1980s. Iranian officials deposited £4 million into a secret Jersey bank account, funded by the sale of artwork from the Iranian Embassy in London. Hadi Ghaffari, the "machinegun mullah", was sent to Belfast and organised the distribution of the money via sympathetic Irish businessmen.
It has been alleged that the IRA had a co-operative relationship with Basque militant group ETA since the early 1970s. In 1973 it was accused of providing explosives for the assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco in Madrid. In the 1970s, ETA also exchanged a quantity of handguns for training in explosives with the IRA. In addition, the leaders of the political wings of the respective Irish republican and Basque separatist movements have exchanged visits on several occasions to express solidarity with each other's cause. Prominent former IRA prisoners such as Brendan McFarlane and Brendan Hughes have campaigned for the release of ETA prisoners. In the mid-1990s after the IRA ceasefire, Basque media outlets followed the process carefully, sending a team to follow the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday as they campaigned for apology.
In May 1996, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's internal security service, publicly accused Estonia of arms smuggling, and claimed that the IRA had contacted representatives of Estonia's volunteer defence force, Kaitseliit, and some non-government groups to buy weapons. In 2001, three Irish men, who later became known as the Colombia Three, were arrested after allegedly training Colombian guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in bomb making and urban warfare techniques. The US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations in its report of 24 April 2002 concluded "Neither committee investigators nor the Colombians can find credible explanations for the increased, more sophisticated capacity for these specific terror tactics now being employed by the FARC, other than IRA training".
In December 2013 the report of the Smithwick Tribunal concluded that "on the balance of probability" collusion took place between the IRA and members of the Garda Síochána in the 1989 killing of two RUC officers; however, the report could not conclusively prove this.
Throughout the Troubles, some members of the IRA passed information to the security forces. Members of the IRA suspected of being informants were usually killed. In the 1980s, many more IRA members were imprisoned on the testimony of former IRA members known as "supergrasses" such as Raymond Gilmour. A Belfast newspaper has claimed that secret documents show that half of the IRA's top men were also British informers.
There have been some high-profile allegations of senior IRA figures having been British informers. In May 2003, a number of newspapers named Freddie Scappaticci as the alleged identity of the British Force Research Unit's most senior informer within the IRA, code-named Stakeknife, who is thought to have been head of the IRA's internal security force, charged with rooting out and executing informers. Scappaticci denies that this is the case and, in 2003, failed in a legal bid to force the then NIO Minister, Jane Kennedy, to state he was not an informer. She has refused to do so, and since then Scappaticci has not launched any libel actions against the media making the allegations.
On 16 December 2005, senior Sinn Féin member Denis Donaldson appeared before TV cameras in Dublin and confessed to being a British spy for twenty years. He was expelled from Sinn Féin and was said to have been debriefed by the party. Donaldson was a former IRA volunteer and subsequently highly placed Sinn Féin party member. Donaldson had been entrusted by Gerry Adams with the running of Sinn Féin's operations in the US in the early 1990s. On 4 April 2006, Donaldson was found shot dead at his retreat near Glenties in County Donegal. When asked whether he felt Donaldson's role as an informer in Sinn Féin was significant, the IRA double agent using the pseudonym "Kevin Fulton" described Donaldson's role as a spy within Sinn Féin as "the tip of the iceberg". The Real IRA claimed responsibility for his assassination on 12 April 2009.
On 8 February 2008, Roy McShane was taken into police protection after being unmasked as an informant. McShane, a former IRA member, had been Gerry Adams' personal driver for many years. Adams said he was "too philosophical" to feel betrayed.