Nearby Words

Provisional Irish Republican Army

Provisional Irish Republican Army

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (Óglaigh na hÉireann) (IRA; also referred to as the PIRA, the Provos, or by some of its supporters as the Army or the 'RA.) is an Irish republican paramilitary organisation that sought to end British Rule in Northern Ireland and bring about a united Ireland by use of violence. Since its emergence in 1969, its stated aim was end the legacy of British oppression in Ireland, and make Ireland one country and one Republic. The organisation is classified as a proscribed terrorist group in the United Kingdom and as an illegal organisation in the Republic of Ireland.. Unlike other paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, it is not listed as an illegal organisation in the United States

The IRA sees itself as a direct continuation of the Irish Republican Army (the army of the Irish Republic — 1919–1921) that fought in the Irish War of Independence. Like all other organisations calling themselves the IRA (see List of IRAs), the Provisionals refer to themselves in public announcements and internal discussions as Óglaigh na hÉireann ("The Irish Volunteers"), which is also the Irish language title of the Irish Defence Forces (the Irish army).

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 that IRA "Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever".

An internal British Army document released in 2007 stated that the British Army had failed to defeat the IRA by force of arms but also claims to have 'shown the IRA that it could not achieve its ends through violence'. The military assessment describes the IRA as 'professional, dedicated, highly skilled and resilient'.

In September 2008, the nineteenth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission stated that the PIRA was "committed to the political path" and no longer represented "a threat to peace or to democratic politics. The PIRA's army council has been described as 'no longer operational or functional'.


1969 split in the IRA

According to modern physical force Irish republicanism theory, the two Irish governmental entities which have existed in Ireland since 1922, Northern Ireland and the state variously known at different times as the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland, were illegitimate, as they had been imposed by the British at the time of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, in defiance of the last all-Ireland election in 1918, when the majority had voted for full independence. The real Irish state was the Irish Republic, unilaterally declared in 1919 and which, according to republican theory, was still in existence. According to this theory, the modern day Provisional Irish Republican Army is merely the continuation of the original Irish Republican Army which served as the army of the Irish Republic during the Irish War of Independence.

While at the time of Treaty and the subsequent Irish Civil War the majority of the "old" IRA held this position, by the 1930s most republicans had accepted the Free State and were willing to work within it - recognising the Irish Army as the state's armed force. However, a minority of republicans argued that the army of the Republic was still the pre-1969 Irish Republican Army, itself the lineal descendant of the defeated faction in the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. Moreover, the IRA Army Council was the legitimate government of Ireland until the Irish Republic could be re-established. This IRA in theory wanted to overthrow both Irish states, but by the late 1940s, it issued orders that "no armed action was to be taken against 26 county forces under any circumstances whatsoever". From then on, they concentrated on the overthrow of Northern Ireland, which was still part of the United Kingdom, but which contained a substantial Catholic and nationalist population. In the 1950s, the IRA waged a largely ineffective guerilla campaign against Northern Ireland, known as the "Border Campaign". This was called off in 1962.

The IRA split into two groups at its Special Army Convention in December 1969, over the issue of abstentionism (whether to sit in or to "abstain" from the Dáil or parliament of the Republic of Ireland) and over the question of how to respond to the escalating violence in Northern Ireland (see The Troubles). In 1969, serious rioting had broken out in Derry following an Apprentice Boys march (Battle of the Bogside). Subsequently hundreds of Catholic homes were destroyed in Belfast by loyalists in the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969. The IRA had not been armed or organised to defend the Catholic community, as it had done since the 1920s. The two groups that emerged from the split became known as the Official IRA (which espoused a Marxist analysis of Irish partition) and the Provisional IRA.

The Official IRA did not want to get involved in what it considered to be divisive sectarian violence, nor did it want to launch an armed campaign against Northern Ireland, citing the failure of the IRA's Border Campaign in the 1950s. They favoured building up a political base among the working class, both Catholic and Protestant, north and south, which would eventually undermine partition. This involved recognising and sitting in elected bodies north and south of the border. The Provisionals, by contrast, advocated a robust armed defence of Catholics in the north and an offensive campaign in Northern Ireland to end British rule there. They also denounced the "communist" tendencies of the "Official" faction in favour of traditional Irish republicanism and non-Marxist democratic socialism, and they refused to recognise the legitimacy of either the northern or southern Irish states.

Foundation of the Provisional IRA

The Provisional IRA had its origins in the "Provisional Army Council" formed in December 1969, when an IRA Convention voted to recognise the Parliaments of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Opponents of this change in the IRA Constitution argued strongly against this, 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 not a walkout. Those opposed, who include Mac Stíofáin and Ruairi O Bradaigh, did refuse to go forward for election to the new IRA Executive.

While others organized throughout Ireland, MacStiofain 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 1969. Nine out of thirteen IRA units in Belfast sided with the Provisionals in 1969, roughly 120 activists and 500 supporters. The new group elected a "Provisional Army Council" to head the new IRA. The first Provisional IRA Army Council was: Sean Mac Stiofain, C/S, Ruairi O Bradaigh, Paddy Mulcahy, Sean Tracey, Leo Martin, and Joe Cahill. A political wing, Provisional Sinn Féin, was founded on 11 January, 1970, when a third of the delegates walked out of the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in protest at the party leadership's attempt to force through the ending of the abstentionist policy, despite its failure to achieve a two-thirds majority vote of delegates required to change the policy.

There are allegations that the early Provisional IRA got off the ground due to arms and funding from the Fianna Fáil-led Irish government in 1969. This was not found to be the case when investigated in the Arms trial. However, roughly £100,000 was donated by the Irish government to "Defense 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 main figures in the early Provisional IRA were Seán Mac Stiofáin (who served as the organisation's first chief of staff), Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (the first president of Provisional Sinn Féin), Dáithí Ó Conaill, and Joe Cahill. All served on the first Provisional IRA Army Council. The Provisional appellation deliberately echoed the "Provisional Government" proclaimed during the 1916 Easter Rising.

The Provisionals maintained a number of the principles of the pre-1969 IRA. It considered British rule in Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Ireland to be illegitimate. Like the pre-1969 IRA, it believed that the IRA Army Council was the legitimate government of the all-island Irish Republic. This belief was based on a complicated series of perceived political inheritances which constructed a legal continuity from the Second Dáil. Most of these abstentionist principles were abandoned in 1986, although Sinn Féin still refuses to take its seats in the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

As the violence in Northern Ireland steadily increased, both the Official IRA and Provisional IRA espoused military means to pursue their goals. Unlike the Officials, however, who characterised their violence as purely "defensive," the Provisionals called for a more aggressive campaign against the Northern Ireland state. While the Officials were initially, for a short period, the larger organisation and enjoyed more support from the republican community, the Provisionals came to dominate, especially after the Official IRA declared an indefinite ceasefire in 1972. The Provisionals inherited most of the existing IRA organisation in the north by 1971 and 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 communal violence that broke out in 1969. These people were known in republican parlance as "sixty niners", having joined after 1969.

Although the Provisional IRA had a political wing, Provisional Sinn Féin, which split with Official Sinn Féin at the same time as the split in the IRA, the early Provisional IRA was extremely suspicious of political activity, arguing rather for the primacy of armed struggle.


The IRA is organised hierarchically. At the top of the organisation is the IRA Army Council, headed by the IRA Chief of Staff.


All levels of the IRA are entitled to send delegates to IRA General Army Conventions (GACs). The GAC is the IRA's supreme decision-making authority. Before 1969, GACs met regularly. Since 1969 there have only been two, in 1970 and 1986, owing to the difficulty in organising such a large secret gathering of what is an illegal organisation.

The GAC in turn elects a 12-member IRA Executive, which in turn selects seven volunteers to form the IRA Army Council. For day-to-day purposes authority is vested in the Army Council which, as well as directing policy and taking major tactical decisions, appoints a Chief of Staff from one of its number or, less commonly, from outside its ranks.

The chief of staff then appoints an adjutant general as well as a General Headquarters (GHQ), which consists of a number of individual departments. These departments are:

  • IRA Quartermaster General
  • IRA Director of Finance
  • IRA Director of Engineering
  • IRA Director of Training
  • IRA Director of Intelligence
  • IRA Director of Publicity
  • IRA Director of Operations
  • IRA Director of Security

Regional command

At a regional level, the IRA is divided into a Northern Command, which operates in the nine Ulster counties as well as County Leitrim and County 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. These moves at reorganisation were, according to Ed Moloney the idea of Ivor Bell, Gerry Adams and Brian Keenan.


The IRA refers 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, which in turn was part of a battalion, which could be part of a brigade, although many battalions were not attached to a brigade.

For most of its existence, the IRA had five Brigade areas within what it referred to as the "war-zone". These Brigades were located in Belfast, Derry, Tyrone/Monaghan and Armagh. The Belfast Brigade had three battalions, respectively 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. Derry city had one battalion and the South Derry Brigade. The Derry Battalion became the Derry Brigade in 1972 after a rapid increase in membership following Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed demonstrators at a civil rights march. County Armagh had three battalions, two very active ones in South Armagh and a 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, is often called the East Tyrone Brigade. Fermanagh, South Down, North Antrim had units not attached to Brigades. 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

In 1977, the IRA moved away from the larger conventional military organisational principle owing to its perceived security vulnerability. In place of the battalion structures, a system of two parallel types of unit within an IRA Brigade was introduced. 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 5-8 members, for carrying out armed attacks. The ASU's weapons were controlled by a quartermaster under the direct control of the IRA leadership. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was estimated that the IRA had roughly 300 members in ASUs and another 450 or so others 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.

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 finance through robberies and other means.

Strategy 1969–1998

"Escalation, escalation and escalation"

Following the violence of August 1969, the IRA began to arm and train to protect nationalist areas from further attack. After the split, the Provisional IRA began planning for an "all-out offensive action against the British occupation.

The Official IRA were opposed to such a campaign because 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 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 as much force as possible to cause the collapse of the Northern Ireland administration and to inflict enough 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 intensive recruitment of volunteers and carrying out as many attacks on British forces as possible, 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). In their assessment of the IRA campaign, the British Army would describe these 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 within Northern Ireland after the events of Bloody Sunday when IRA recruitment and support increased. The IRA agreed to a temporary ceasefire from 26 June to 9 July. In July 1972, IRA leaders Seán Mac Stíofáin, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Ivor Bell, Seamus Twomey, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met a British delegation led by William Whitelaw. The IRA leaders refused to consider a peace settlement that did not include a commitment to British withdrawal, a retreat of the British Army to barracks and a release of republican prisoners. The British refused and the talks broke up.

Éire Nua and the 1975 ceasefire

The Provisionals' ultimate goal in this period was the abolition of both the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland states and their replacement with a new all-Ireland federal republic, with decentralised governments and parliaments for each of the four Irish historic provinces. This programme was known as Éire Nua (New Ireland). The Éire Nua programme remained policy until discontinued by the Provisionals under the leadership of Gerry Adams in the early 1980s in favour of the pursuit of a new unitary all-Ireland Republic.

By the mid 1970s, it was clear that the hopes of the IRA leadership for a quick military victory were receding. The British military was equally unsure of when it would begin to 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 Rees was trying to bring them into peaceful politics without offering them any guarantees. 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. The ceasefire broke down in January 1976.

The "Long War"

Thereafter, the IRA, under the leadership of Adams and his supporters, evolved a new strategy termed the "Long War", which underpinned IRA strategy for the rest of the Troubles. It involved a 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 the Sinn Féin party. 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 Provisionals, describes the strategy of the "Long War" in these terms:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. To make the Six Counties... ungovernable except by colonial military rule.
  4. To sustain the war and gain support for its ends by National and International propaganda and publicity campaigns.
  5. By defending the war of liberation by punishing criminals, collaborators and informers.

1981 hunger strikes and electoral politics

IRA prisoners convicted after March 1976 did not have Special Category Status applied in prison. In response, over 500 prisoners refused to wash or wear prison clothes (see Dirty protest and Blanket protest.) 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 Irish Dáil. In addition, there were work stoppages and large demonstrations all over Ireland in sympathy with the hunger strikers. Over 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". (See Armalite and ballot box strategy)

"TUAS" - peace strategy

In the 1980s, the IRA made an attempt to escalate the conflict with the so called "Tet Offensive". When this did not prove successful, republican leaders increasingly looked for a political compromise to end the conflict. Gerry Adams entered talks with John Hume, the leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and secret talks were also conducted with British civil servants. Thereafter, Adams increasingly tried to disassociate Sinn Féin from the IRA, claiming they were separate organisations and refusing to comment on IRA actions. 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 ultimately called an indefinite ceasefire in 1994 on the understanding that Sinn Féin would be included in political talks for a settlement. When this did not happen, the IRA called off its ceasefire from February 1996 until July 1997, carrying out several bombing and shooting attacks. After its ceasefire was reinstated, Sinn Féin was admitted into the "Peace Process", which produced the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

Weaponry and operations

In the early days of the Troubles from around 1969-71, the Provisional IRA was very poorly armed, 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 al-Gaddafi, arms dealers in Europe, America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

In the first years of the conflict, the Provisionals' 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.

However, from 1971–1994, the Provisionals 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. The first half of the 1970s was the most intense period of the IRA campaign. In addition, IRA units carried out sectarian killings such as the Kingsmill massacre of 1976.

The IRA was chiefly active in Northern Ireland, although it took its campaign to England, and also carried out attacks in the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands and West Germany. The IRA also targeted certain British government officials, politicians, judges, senior military and police officers in England, and in other areas such as 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.

Ceasefires and decommissioning of arms

On the 31 August 1994, the Provisional IRA declared an indefinite ceasefire. Although this ceasefire temporarily broke down in 1995-97, it essentially marked the end of the full scale IRA campaign.

From December 1995 until July 1997, the Provisional IRA called off its 1994 ceasefire because of its dissatisfaction with the state of negotiations. They re-instated the ceasefire in July 1997, it has been in operation since then.

The Provisional IRA decommissioned all of its 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:

The conclusion of the IICD (that all Provisional IRA weaponry has been destroyed) was arrived at by their full involvement in the process of destroying the weapons and their comparison of weapons destroyed with the figures British security forces estimate the IRA had. 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. Although the group overseeing the activities of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland - the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), in its latest report, dated April 2006, points out that it has no reason to disbelieve the IRA or information to suspect that the group has not fully decommissioned. Rather it indicated that any weaponry that had not been handed in had been retained by individuals outside the IRA's control.

Other activities

Apart from its armed campaign, the Provisional IRA has also been involved in many other activities, including policing, robberies and kidnapping for the purposes of raising funds.

Policing of communities

The IRA looked on itself as the police force of nationalist areas of Northern Ireland during the Troubles instead of the RUC. There were a number of reasons for this. In many Nationalist areas of Northern Ireland, the RUC and British Army, as a result of their conduct and perceived involvement in oppression and violence against Nationalists, were considered biased and untrustworthy, and so were not welcome. Also, the RUC and other forces of the authorities were in some instances reluctant to enter certain Nationalist areas, or patrol, unless it was in armoured Land Rovers and in convoy. Police stations were also heavily armoured because of persistent attacks from the IRA. This gave them the appearance of being fortresses. These conditions led to a situation where in some areas, the community would turn to the IRA first to deal with troublemakers or those practising what came to be called "anti-social behaviour". In efforts to stamp out "anti-social behaviour" and alleged instances of drug dealing reported to or noticed by the organisation, it killed or otherwise attacked suspected drug dealers and other suspected criminals. These attacks varied in severity and depended on various factors. In the first instance, the IRA may serve a caution on the perceived offender, which if they transgressed again might escalate to an attack known as a "punishment beating". Shooting the offender was seen as a last resort, although the process which the IRA went through to determine an offenders "guilt" or "innocence" was never open to debate or scrutiny. The IRA also engaged in attacks which broke the bones of alleged offenders, or involved shooting through the hands, or knees for persistent offenders of activities such as joyriding or drug dealing. In certain cases, for persistent offenders the IRA would serve a notice for the individual to leave the country, this was known as being "put out" of the community/country, and the clear message given to individuals served with these notices was that if they returned to the community/country they would be killed. This practice was frequently criticised by all sections of the political establishment in Northern Ireland as "summary justice".


In an effort to stamp out what the IRA termed "collaboration with British forces" and "informing", they killed a number of Catholic civilians, such as Joseph Fenton. Purges against these individuals, who the IRA considered traitors to their own community and the cause of nationalism, were most prevalent when the IRA found itself persistently vulnerable to infiltration. Investigations into informers and infiltration are suspected to have been dealt with by an IRA unit called the Internal Security Unit (ISU) known colloquially as the 'Nutting Squad'. This unit is said to be directly attached to IRA GHQ. Where a confession was solicited, the victim was often exiled or executed with a bullet in the back of the head. The body was either buried or later in the IRA campaign left in a public place often in South Armagh.

One particular example of the killing of a person deemed by the IRA to have been an informer that is the source of continuing controversy is that of Jean McConville from Belfast who was killed by the IRA. Ed Moloney and IRA sources continue to claim she was an informer despite the Police Ombudsman recently stating that this was not the case. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have described the killing as a 'war crime'. Her family contend that she was killed as a punishment for aiding a dying British soldier in West Belfast.

In March 2007 Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan announced that there would be an inquiry into claims of collusion between IRA members and the British security forces.

Attacks on other Republican paramilitary groups

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.

Joseph O'Connor (26) was shot dead in Ballymurphy, west Belfast on 11 October 2000. He was a leading member of the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA). Claims have been made by O'Connor's family and people associated with the RIRA, that he was murdered by Provisionals as the result of a feud between the organisations, but Sinn Féin denied the claims. No-one has been charged as yet with his killing.

Fundraising via organised crime

According to the Irish Minister of Justice from 2002 to 2007, Michael McDowell, the IRA was involved in organised crime on both sides of the Irish border. These activities include smuggling of counterfeit goods, contraband cigarettes and oil.


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 have reportedly killed more people than any other organisation since the Troubles began. In addition, they have killed more Roman Catholics, more Protestants, more civilians and more foreigners (those not from Northern Ireland) than any other organisation. Members of the IRA however have frequently disputed that the forces ranged in opposition to the IRA throughout 'the Troubles' represent separate, distinct "organisations". In the republican analysis of the conflict, organisations like the UDR, British Army, along with the UVF, and UDA represent an alliance of state and paramilitary forces, making a tally of this type nonsensical as it does not represent the nature of the conflict in their view.

Two very detailed studies of deaths in the Troubles, the CAIN project at the University of Ulster, and Lost Lives, differ slightly on the numbers killed by the Provisional IRA but a rough synthesis gives a figure of 1,800 deaths. Of these, roughly 1,100 were members of the security forces - British Army, Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment, between 600 and 650 were civilians and the remainder were either loyalist or republican paramilitaries (including over 100 IRA members accidentally killed by their own bombs).

It has also been estimated that the IRA injured 6,000 British Army, UDR and RUC and up to 14,000 civilians, during the Troubles.

The IRA lost a little under 300 members killed in the Troubles. In addition, roughly 50-60 members of Sinn Féin were killed.

Far more common than the killing of IRA volunteers however, was their imprisonment. Journalists Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop estimate in their book The Provisional IRA, that between eight and ten thousand members of the organisation had been imprisoned by the mid-1980s, a number they also give 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. In Northern Ireland the IRA are referred to as terrorists by the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Progressive Unionist Party. Members of the IRA are tried in the Republic of Ireland in the Special Criminal Court. On the island of Ireland the largest political party to state that the IRA is not a terrorist organisation is Sinn Féin, currently the largest pro-Belfast Agreement political party in Northern Ireland (Sinn Féin is widely regarded as the political wing of the IRA, but the party insists that the two organisations are separate). The European Union has removed the IRA from their list of terrorist organisations. Peter Mandelson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary (a member of the British cabinet with responsibility 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 ). IRA supporters preferred the labels freedom fighter, guerrilla and volunteer.

The IRA describes 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". The IRA considers its members guerrillas fighting a war.

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.

A less loaded categorisation of IRA violence exists. It does not involve 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 (Belfast) 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.

Strength and support

Numerical strength

In the early to mid 1970s, the numbers recruited by the Provisional 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 Michael McDowell told the Dáil that the organisation had "between 1,000 and 1,500" active members. According to The Provisional IRA (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. The total figure for the number to have passed through the organisation must therefore be higher again, once those recruited since 1988 are taken into account. In recent times 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. Despite some successes by the British and Irish security services, military and police at infiltrating the IRA, as of the year 2001, the British and Irish governments believed that the IRA remained an extremely potent and capable terrorist organisation.

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. Even after this, most nationalists in Northern Ireland voted for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) until the early 2000s. 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 United Kingdom general election, 1983, only 34,000 votes behind the SDLP. However, by the 1992 UK 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 roughly 150,000 votes to Sinn Féin's 80,000 votes. During the Troubles, therefore, nationalists in Northern Ireland tended to vote for non-violent nationalism rather than for Sinn Féin, who endorsed the IRA campaign. Sinn Féin did not overtake the SDLP as the main nationalist party in Northern Ireland until after the Belfast Agreement, by which time they no longer advocated violence. 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 in order to make sure Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin lost his seat in the constituency.

However, it is widely recognised that the IRA possessed substantial support in parts of Northern Ireland since the early 1970s. Areas of IRA support included working class Catholic/nationalist areas of Belfast, Derry and other towns and cities. The most notable of these include parts of the north and west Belfast and the Bogside and Creggan areas of Derry City. In addition, the IRA has been strongly supported in rural areas with a strong republican tradition, these include South Armagh, East Tyrone, South County Londonderry and several other localities. Such support would be indicated by the recruitment of IRA members from an area and the populace hiding weapons, providing safe houses to IRA members and providing information on the movements of the Security Forces.

In the Republic of Ireland, there was some sympathy for the IRA movement in the early 1970s. 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 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. Sinn Féin did very badly in elections in the Republic of Ireland during the IRA's campaign. For example, in the December 1981 local government elections, Sinn Féin candidates won just 5% of the popular vote. By 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 Belfast Agreement of 1998.

Sinn Féin now has 28 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (out of 108), five Westminster MPs (out of 18 from Northern Ireland) and five 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) of both in the early 1970s and mid 1980s.

The IRA has also received weapons and logistical support from Irish Americans in the United States, especially the NORAID group. 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 revealed the Central Intelligence Agency had approved the shipment (although the CIA officially 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. It has received some training and support from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and has had some contact with Hezbollah. 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 defense force, Kaitseliit, and some non-government groups to buy weapons. In 2001 three Irish men who 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 U.S. 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".

The Belfast Agreement

The IRA ceasefire in 1997 formed part of a process that led to the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The Agreement has among its aims that all paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland cease their activities and disarm by May 2000. This is one of many Agreement aims that have yet to be realised.

Calls from Sinn Féin have led the IRA to commence disarming in a process that has been overviewed 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 its armed campaign. In a statement read by Séanna Breathnach, the organisation stated that it had instructed its members to dump all weapons and not to engage in "any other activities whatsoever" apart from assisting “the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means". Furthermore, the organisation authorised its representatives to engage immediately with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) to verifiably put its arms beyond use "in a way which will further enhance public confidence and to conclude this as quickly as possible".

This is not the first time that organisations styling themselves IRA have 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 is the first time in Irish republicanism that any organisation has voluntarily decided to destroy its arms.

On 25 September 2005, international weapons inspectors supervised the full disarmament of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, a long-sought goal of Northern Ireland's peace process. The office of IICD Chairman John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general who oversaw the weapons destruction at secret locations, released details regarding the scrapping of many tons of IRA weaponry at a news conference in Belfast on 26 September. He said the arms had been "put beyond use" and that they were "satisfied that the arms decommissioned represent the totality of the IRA's arsenal."

The IRA permitted two independent witnesses, including a Methodist minister, Rev. Harold Good, and Father Alec Reid, a Roman Catholic priest close to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, to view the secret disarmament work. However, Ian Paisley, the leader of the DUP, complained that since the witnesses were appointed by the IRA themselves, rather than being appointed by the British or Irish governments, they therefore cannot be said to be unbiased witnesses to the decommissioning. These claims came as expected by Nationalists and Catholics, who viewed Ian Paisley’s consistent refusal to support devolution in Northern Ireland with Catholics in power as a simple unwillingness to accept an end to Unionist rule and Catholic equality.

Continuing activities of IRA members

The 10th report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), an organisation monitoring activity by paramilitary groups on behalf of the British and Irish governments, prefaced its remarks about IRA activity by saying:
"It remains our absolutely clear view that the PIRA leadership has committed itself to following a peaceful path. It is working to bring the whole organisation fully along with it and has expended considerable effort to refocus the movement in support of its objective. In the last three months this process has involved the further dismantling of PIRA as a military structure."

Its report made the following comments about current IRA activity:

"We are not aware of current terrorist, paramilitary or violent activity sanctioned by the leadership. We have had no indications in the last three months of training, engineering activity, recent recruitment or targeting for the purposes of attack. There has now been a substantial erosion in PIRA’s capacity to return to a military campaign without a significant period of build-up, which in any event we do not believe they have any intentions of doing. The instructions we have previously mentioned to refrain from violence or rioting still stand.

The IMC has come in for criticism (mainly by Republicans) as having been set up outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement as a sop to Unionism. Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy summed up the typical republican feeling towards the IMC in February 2006. He said, "The IMC was established outside and in breach of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a tool for the securocrats and the opponents of change. It is not and never has been independent. It is politically biased, has a clear anti Sinn Féin agenda, and its procedures are flawed."

On 4 October 2006, the IMC ruled that the IRA were no longer a threat.

P. O'Neill

The IRA traditionally uses a well-known signature in its public statements, which are all issued under the pseudonym of "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". Ó Brádaigh also maintains that there is no particular significance to the name. According to Danny Morrison, the pseudonym "S. O'Neill" was used during the 1940s.


The IRA has been infiltrated by British Intelligence agents, and in the past some IRA members have been informers. Members suspected of being informants were usually executed after an IRA 'court-martial'. The IRA executed 63 people as informers in the Troubles.

The first large infiltrations of IRA structures occurred in the mid 1970s, around the time of the ceasefire of 1975. Many IRA volunteers were arrested when this ceasefire broke down in 1976. In the 1980s, many more IRA members were imprisoned on the testimony of former IRA members known as "supergrasses" such as Raymond Gilmour and Martin McGartland. Sean O'Callaghan, one of the IRA commanders in the Republic of Ireland, was an informer for the Garda Siochana throughout the 1980s until he was discovered and was put in protective custody in Britain.

In recent years, 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 Provisional 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 Minister for NI, 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 Provisional IRA volunteer and subsequently highly placed Sinn Féin party member. One example of the trust put in Donaldson is that he had been entrusted by Gerry Adams with the running of Sinn Féin's operations in the USA 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 former Force Research Unit and MI5 operative using the pseudonym "Martin Ingram" concurs with "Kevin Fulton" and has even gone so far as to allege that Gerry Adams knew that Donaldson was an agent.Ingram was described in court as a walter mitty type character, Ingram has also claimed that Martin McGuinness is a British agent. As evidence for this claim he alleges that McGuinness was involved in the death of IRA volunteer and FRU agent Frank Hegarty in May 1986. McGuinness has denied any involvement in the Hegarty case and brushed off allegations that he is a spy. He also brushed off the most recent allegations made by Ingram in the Sunday World newspaper on 28 May 2006.

On 8 February 2008 Roy McShane was taken into police protection after being unmasked as an informer. McShane, a former IRA member, had been Gerry Adams' personal driver for many years. Adams said he was "too philosophical" to feel betrayed.

See also



  • Martin Dillon, 25 Years of Terror - the IRA's War against the British,
  • Richard English, Armed Struggle - A History of the IRA, MacMillan, London 2003, ISBN 1-4050-0108-9
  • Peter Taylor, Provos - the IRA and Sinn Féin
  • Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, Penguin, London 2002,
  • Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop, The Provisional IRA, Corgi, London 1988. ISBN 0-552-13337-X
  • Toby Harnden, Bandit Country -The IRA and South Armagh, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1999, ISBN 0-340-71736-X
  • Brendan O'Brien, The Long War - The IRA and Sinn Féin. O'Brien Press, Dublin 1995, ISBN 0-86278-359-3
  • Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles,
  • Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA: A History (1994)
  • Tony Geraghty, The Irish War, 1998 ISBN 0801864569
  • David McKitrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton, David McVea, Lost Lives.
  • J Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army - The IRA, 1997 3rd Edition, ISBN 1-85371-813-0
  • Christopher Andrews, The Mitrokhin Archive (also published as The Sword and the Shield)

External links

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