The Irish Republican Army (IRA)


The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was a nationalist organization under the leadership of Michael Collins that was made up of the remnant of rebels after the Easter Rebellion of 1916 in Ireland. After the Free State was established in 1922, this group of rebels became the stronghold of Ireland and military wing of the Sinn Fein party and was responsible for the separation of Northern Ireland. During the Free State years, their activities included raids and bombings on both sides of the Irish border. Although the IRA enjoyed tremendous popularity and effectiveness, in the beginning, things changed after 1932 when Eamon De Valera, a former supporter, took over the leadership of the Free State government. A combination of factors finally led to the weakening of the group namely internal dissensions; loss of popular support for use of violence; support for the Germans during WWII; government restrictions on its illegal operations; and adoption of republican objectives. IRA was subsequently outlawed in all of Ireland after which it became a secret organization. Today, the IRA is made up of some moderates who are devoted to the promotion of peace although some of them are still considered as radicals who wish to carry on with an armed campaign. The IRA continues to have a large number of supporters outside Ireland, especially in the USA (Questia Encyclopedia).

The Irish Republican Army

Ireland first came under British conquest in the 12th century when Normans arrived in Ireland, but the British did not gain control of the island until later in the 16th Century during the Protestant reign of Henry VIII and then Elizabeth I. The British gained control and authority over the whole of Ireland and undertook to suppress Catholicism. King James later encouraged people to migrate from Scotland and England giving them very generous offers to purchase the best farmland in Ireland. As the new British colonists moved in, the native Irish clans previously living on the land were either dispossessed or kicked off the land. This created a very strained relationship between the English-speaking newcomers and Gaelic speakers of Ireland. The newcomers were also protestant in contrast with the largely Catholic natives and with the King’s backing as well as that of the British army; the English Protestants were able to quickly gain political power over the disposed of native Irish. The plight of the native Irish was made worse by the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852 that reduced the dispossessed Irish farmers to acute starvation. Many sought a solution by migrating to America and Canada although about a third of the immigrants died on the way from disease and starvation. But even though many of the immigrants died before they reached the Americas, enough of them survived to become the beginning of a long tradition of emigration that continues to this day. These emigrants created a political force of Irish Americans which became a major financier of revolutions by the Irish people against England. It is the horrifying legacy of the Great Famine that pushed many Irish citizens to begin seeking social and political change and if necessary, through violent means. About a half-century however passed before the Irish Republicans could make any attempt at armed resistance (Derkins, pp. 7-10).

The group that would later become the Irish Republican Army was formed in 1916 and immediately began to advocate for Irish freedom or sovereignty from British rule. Ireland had been subjected to British occupation for over 800 years and the native Irish Catholics often suffered harsh discrimination and extreme brutality under the Britons. In the 1920s, Ireland however lost the War of Independence from Britain and this led to the partitioning of Ireland into two regions. Through the government of Ireland Act of 1920 which was later ratified in January 1922, Ireland was officially split into two; the Free State of Ireland which was later to become the Republic of Ireland in 1949, and Northern Ireland which was made up of six counties under British rule. While the native Irish Catholics living in the south could freely practice their religion, those in Northern Ireland had no permission to do so. Irish Catholics in the North also suffered other disadvantages such as limited opportunities for jobs and housing as compared to the Irish Protestants. They were also exposed to unfair treatment and sometimes brutality by the military and the police. Catholics living in the North felt like criminals and unwelcome in their homeland. This partitioning of Ireland was not received well by the Irish Republicans and members of IRA made it their objective to fight for the independent Irish Republic. The main goal of IRA, therefore, became the fight for civil liberties of all Irish people seeking to help them obtain civil rights, religious freedom and equal opportunities for all as well as to rule out the differences that British occupation had created between the North and South. But despite its seemingly noble intentions, the battle undertaken by the IRA and the tactics used have always been controversial since the very beginning (Hollis, pp. 5-15).

In October 1917, the Sinn Fein, a political party that stood for a separate Irish parliament but under the British Crown received a new lease of life through an influx of Volunteers. Eamon de Valera, the only surviving leader after the 1916 revolution was elected as party president. This move subordinated the IRA to political party control by Sinn Fein, a party that claimed rights as the country’s spokesman although, in practice, IRA was still controlled by Michael Collis. These two organizations worked for hand in hand to break all connections that Ireland had with Britain, by establishing a revolutionary Irish government based in Dublin from where military activities were carried out against the British occupation of Ireland. Political unrest led to the partitioning of Ireland into two by the British government through the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 that gave rise to the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. Between 1919 and 1921, the IRA in conjunction with the Sinn Fein party became the driving force behind Ireland’s war of Independence. The war resulted from the treaty between Ireland and Great Britain that subsequently led to a split within IRA which by then had over 100,000 strong. After April 1922, two sections of the army now existed; one loyal to the IRA executive and the other to the provisional government governing the Free State. Although Sinn Fein and the IRA achieved tremendous success throughout most of Ireland, state security agents such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Royal Irish Constabulary (Kenny, pp. 133-136).

This volunteer army had its constitution and executive and though its membership overlapped between the individual volunteers and those from other national organizations, the existence of the Dail and Sinn Fein was rather autonomous. Throughout the Anglo-Irish War, these volunteers pursued separate but complementary courses of action. Gradually, Sinn Fein took control of the juridical function of many of the country courts, settling disputes and setting up courts, while the volunteers sought military supremacy wherever they could. During a convention held at Dublin’s Mansion on March 26, 1922, the volunteer army officially became the Irish Republican Army which was however to continue operating on a purely voluntary basis. The new army had three major objectives on its agenda namely; to safeguard and maintain the independent Irish Republic; to protect the common Irish people’s rights and liberties, and to openly provide its services to an established Republican government that upheld its objectives. These volunteers would also be responsible to a newly elected sixteen-man executive which also established an Army Council. This was followed by a very dangerous and confusing period during which banks were raided, barracks seized throughout the country and people being shot while in the South, a garrison known as the Four Courts tried to override the constitutional authorities (Coogan, pp. 24-31).

Those volunteers in support of the treaty joined the Irish Free State army while those opposed to it insisted that they were the true IRA. The IRA however lost the war but continued operating as an organization of trained soldiers who were strongly opposed to the treaty as well as the consequences associated with it. Michael Collins was the man in charge of all IRA military affairs and after the organization’s split during the civil war, he reorganized the remainder of the army into what was known as the Free State army. In 1936, the IRA was declared illegal although the organization did not die out. It went underground were a curious relationship with the general public and government ensued. Over the next few years, the IRA continued its attempt to mount campaigns in the North but with little success. Between 1956-1952 for example, a big campaign in which 19 people were killed failed miserably (Day, pp. 27-29).

Rifts in IRA’s leadership often forced the organization to call of its campaigns especially the 1956 border campaign and by 1962, the IRA appeared almost finished as an opposition force in Ireland. A lack of once-popular support combined with military weakness made the IRA change its ideologies from Irish nationalism to Marxism in the early 1960s through the influence of Roy Johnson. Almost all IRA weapons were also sold off to Welsh nationalists. As a result, the IRA was nowhere to be found during the 1968-1969 violence and rioting that characterized Northern Ireland. The civil rights movement turned bloody with violence erupting between the Protestant and Catholic populations. Although many of the IRA members demanded that the organization should have usurped its traditional role of protecting the Catholics against Protestant violence, the Marxist leadership viewed this violence as a working-class conflict and declined to take sides. This led to another split of the IRA into the Marxist aided Official IRA and the traditional republican Provisional IRA whereby the latter group found it quite necessary to continue using violence. The word ‘Provisional’ stood for a temporary designation that would exist as the IRA was being reorganized. Although the mission of reorganization was declared accomplished in September 1970, the name Provisional IRA and its related terms ‘Provies’ and ‘Provos’ stuck (Freeman, pp. 51-52).

For about a decade, the Provisional IRA focused on disputed military options, means through which tactical escalation would take place especially on potential diplomatic options. The group took a position as the national guardians of the Catholics and the British Army that had come to guard the same Catholic community lost confidence in them. The IRA aimed to break law and order and when in October 1970 the army killed the first British soldier, there were cheers from Catholic Nationalists. In 1971, the IRA carried out bombings in the cities in which innocent civilians were injured and killed while buildings were destroyed. The 1972 truce yielded little or no internal discussion but during the 1975-76 truce discussion was accepted by some and it was therefore considered the decade’s most decisive event. After 1980-81, another split however occurred within IRA as a result of the needs of the Sinn Fein party and which gave rise to the Republican Sinn Fein in 1984-86. In 1998, serious opposition to the peace process gave rise to the Real IRA, a splinter group that was determined to keep up the militant spirit. Bombs became symbolic of the old mission role, maintaining the faith and embarrassing the new leadership without expelling the British (Bell, pp. 69-70).

In 1992 and 1993 respectively, more bombings were carried out by the IRA within London’s financial center and other parts of Britain. Although there were signs among key elements within IRA to seek for change through political action, it appeared also that IRA’s campaigns of violence could continue indefinitely. In October 1993, a bomb was planted by the IRA in a Belfast shop killing about 10 people. On August 31, 1994, the IRA however agreed to a ceasefire which was a welcome move by the Northern Irelanders who now became convinced that a better way of settling differences had to be sought. In 1996, the IRA however broke their part of the ceasefire by conducting a bomb attack in London’s Canary Klharf and although talks continued with Sinn Fein, there was very little progress and things continued to be quite gloomy. In September 1997, Sinn Fein leaders finally joined the all-party talks in which an independent commission was set that could look into decommissioning all arms. But the IRA continued to have a stronghold in Catholic West Belfast for several years as a way of protecting their financial empire and controlling lawless youths. In July 2001, IRA was changed to become the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) under an oath of allegiance and new uniform (Day, pp. 33-36).

Towards the end of the 1980s, Sinn Fein’s influence within the nationalist camp had decreased while IRA activities on the other hand continued to increase especially with the sourcing of arms from Libya. Sinn Fein’s electoral appeal was decreasing as well and this put the party’s leadership into a rethinking process that saw the party abandon its unqualified support of tolerance for violence to become a major participant in the peace process that took place in the 1990s, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of April 10 1998 (Neuheiser & Wolff, pp. 9-10). The people of both North and South Ireland subsequently endorsed the agreement on May 22, 1998. For the Irish, the agreement was a historic breakthrough because it committed all the participants to exclusively peaceful and democratic means of resolving differences. But the devolved institutions of the Agreement (Assembly and Executive) were only effective for limited periods between 1998 and 2007. Between 2005 and 2006, the atmosphere in Ireland improved raising hope for a political engagement and on July 28, 2005 the IRA announced that it had brought to an end all armed campaign, a move that was confirmed by the Independent decommissioning body and which brought about the hope of a new party co-operation and way forward (Department of Foreign Affairs).

Throughout its operations, the IRA killed people through sniper’s bullets, crossfire, gun battles, ambushes, explosions, affrays or riots, and anti-personal devices. There was also a counterinsurgency or guerilla war in the early years in which affrays and riots led to the death of very many people. These paramilitary defenders of Ireland’s two major communities have however reported fewer casualties than those suffered by the civilians they have always claimed to defend. However, one of IRA’s major failures has been its failure to present war as a fight between the Irish Republicans against the British State. Currently, the IRA operates as a highly secretive organization, the dominant trait of any underground group or army. Although widely guessed and reported, the names of its Executive leaders and IRA Army Council remain organizational secrets. But many serving volunteers have however been violating IRA General Army Order N0.3 that prohibits anyone from releasing any unauthorized information about the IRA. Most of the studies carried out on the IRA have mainly been reliant on authorized interviews although some documentary materials exist. The volunteer turned spies have also released potentially informative but highly suspect accounts about the IRA. IRA violence has in turn turned Northern Ireland into the most politically violent region of the European Union with politically instigated deaths between 1969-1970 outnumbering the deaths in all other EC countries (Heiberg, O’Leary & Tirman 202, pp. 212-213).

The IRA has always enjoyed some degree of very essential external support although it may not have been from other governments. Irish-Americans have probably provided the most of this support by operating various organizations that have been channeling money to IRA for the purchase of arms and payment of other expenses incurred by the group. One such organization based in the US is Neroid, and the organization has been collecting funds for charitable purposes within Ulster but which appear to have helped in financing of IRA operations. World governments including the US have not been committed to limiting the fundraising of such funds among the Irish people living abroad. No Irish government has however freely offered its support during the violence. The public has gradually shifted its opinion, taking a non-supportive position whereby the North and South have realized greater cooperation in dealing with IRA’s terrorist violence. Occasionally, the IRA has enjoyed state support from countries such as Libya that provided the organization with arms while Irish dissidents have often been receiving training in PLO camps (Lutz, pp. 175-179).

Due to its warring tactics that consist mainly of assassinations and bombings, the IRA as an organization deserves the label of a terrorist group. All of IRA’s attacks, whether on soldiers or civilians were designed to cause terror and subsequently convince the British to resist their policies in Northern Ireland. Hunger strikes have also been used within the IRA a good example being the March 1981 H-Block hunger strike that led to the death of Bobby Sands. Intelligence services have disclosed that dissident republican groups responsible for the recent murders in Northern Ireland have established aside supply of weapons that are being sourced from Eastern Europe. There is rising fear of the groups’ capability to assemble large bombs similar to the Omagh bomb of 1998. Senior officials at the garda headquarters and also within the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have a growing fear that the Real IRA (RIRA) and Continuity IRA (CIRA) have enough resources to establish a well-sustained terrorist campaign. Apart from access to machine guns, assault rifles and small arms, the groups are said to also have access to plastic explosives. Since the year 2000, RIRA is said to have built an arsenal and continues to source more weapons. The organization has bought arms from dealers in the Albanian capital Tirana, which are believed to have been smuggled in small quantities into Ireland over the last three years (Mooney).

According to Times-News reports, both real and threatened tension appears to be returning to Northern Ireland. Shootings and petrol bomb attacks have been reported in Belfast and London-berry leading to major security alerts in gas stations, leisure centers, and schools while hoaxes continue to disrupt daily activity in Belfast and surrounding towns. The uneasy tension has been blamed on continuity IRA and Real IRA, together with their supporters; all of who are opposed to a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland (Coll).


The political violence that has marked the history of Ireland for a long time, therefore, dates back to hundreds of years. It is not merely about religion but involves a very complex mix of religion, national identity, and political operations. Throughout its operations, the IRA displayed a very impressive endurance; operating within a territory of fewer than 2 million people and a minority support base of about 650,000 people from the minority Catholic population. The IRA has also survived many efforts by five serving British Prime Ministers to crush it, beginning from Harold Wilson to John Major. IRA leaders engaged in negotiations with all of these prime ministers either directly or indirectly. Today, the IRA ranks among terrorist organizations that continue to create global security concerns because they tend to use terror attacks as a way of making their presence felt. IRA violence has made Northern Ireland be the most politically violent region of the European Union with politically instigated deaths between 1969-1990 outnumbering the deaths reported in all other European Union countries (Heiberg, O’Leary & Tirman 200-201; Ashmore, Jussim & David, pp. 136-138)

Works Cited

  1. Ashmore, Richard D., Jussim Lee J. and Wilder David. Social Identity, Inter-group Conflict, and Conflict Reduction. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2001. pp. 136-138.
  2. Bell, J. Bowyer. The IRA, 1968-2000: Analysis of a Secret Army. London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2000. pp. 69-70
  3. Coll, Bryan. “Sectarian Tension Returns to Northern Ireland.” 2009.
  4. Coogan, Tim P. The IRA. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. pp. 24-31.
  5. Day, Catharin. Ireland. London UK: New Holland Publishers, 2006. pp. 27-36.
  6. Department of Foreign Affairs. “The Good Friday Agreement: Introduction to the main issues of the Good Friday Agreement, including a description of strands.” 2009.
  7. Derkins, Susie. The Irish Republican Army. Buffalo, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2002. pp. 7-10.
  8. Freeman, Michael. Freedom or Security: The Consequences for Democracies Using Emergency Powers to Fight Terror. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003. pp. 51-52.
  9. Heiberg, Marianne, O’Leary Brendan and Tirman John. Terror, Insurgency, and the State: Ending Protracted Conflicts. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. pp. 200-213.
  10. Hollis, Daniel W. The history of Ireland. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. Pp 5-15.
  11. Kenny, Kevin. Ireland and the British Empire. Oxford University Press, 2006. 133-136.
  12. Lutz, Brenda J. Global Terrorism. London, UK: Routledge, 2004. pp. 175 -179.
  13. Mooney, John. “Dissident factions ‘have built up massive arsenal’: Fears that groups are equipped to carry out another Omagh Style attack are heightened”. Sunday Times 2009.
  14. Neuheiser, Jorg and Wolff Stefan. Peace at last? The impact of the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland. New York: Berghan Books, 2004. pp. 9-10.
  15. Questia: Encyclopedia. “Irish Republican Army.” 2004.

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