The Provisional IRA convention delegates opposed to the change in the Constitution claimed that the convention was gerrymandered "by the creation of new IRA organisational structures for the convention, including the combinations of Sligo-Roscommon-Longford and Wicklow-Wexford-Waterford. The only IRA body that supported this viewpoint was the outgoing IRA Executive. Those members of the outgoing Executive who opposed the change comprised a quorum. They met, dismissed those in favour of the change, and set up a new Executive. They contacted Tom Maguire, who had legitimated the Provisionals in 1969, and asked him for support. Maguire had also been contacted by supporters of Gerry Adams, then and now President of Sinn Féin, and a supporter of the change in the Provisional IRA constitution. Maguire rejected Adams' supporters, supported the IRA Executive members opposed to the change, and named the new organisers the Continuity Army Council. In a 1986 statement, he rejected "the legitimacy of an Army Council styling itself the Council of the Irish Republican Army which lends support to any person or organisation styling itself as Sinn Féin and prepared to enter the partition parliament of Leinster House." In 1987, Maguire described the "Continuity Executive" as the "lawful Executive of the Irish Republican Army.
According to a report in the Cork Examiner, the Continuity IRA's first chief of staff was Dáithí Ó Conaill, who also served as the first chairman of RSF from 1986 to 1987. The Continuity IRA and RSF perceive themselves as forming a "true" Republican Movement.
The CIRA is an illegal organisation under UK (section 11(1) of the Terrorism Act 2000) and Irish law due to the use of 'IRA' in the group's name in a situation analogous to that of the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA). Membership of the organisation is punishable by a sentence of up to ten years imprisonment under UK law. On 13 July 2004, the US government designated the CIRA as a 'Foreign Terrorist Organization' (FTO). This made it illegal for Americans to provide material support to the CIRA, requires US financial institutions to block the group's assets and denies alleged CIRA members visas into the US.
Initially, the Continuity IRA did not reveal its existence, either in the form of press statements or paramilitary activity. Although the Garda Síochána had suspicions that the organisation existed, they were unsure of its name, labelling it the "Irish National Republican Army". On January 21, 1994, on the 75th anniversary of the First Dáil Éireann, Continuity IRA volunteers offered a "final salute" to Tom Maguire by firing over his grave, and a public statement and a photo were published in Saoirse.
It was only after the Provisional IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994 that the Continuity IRA became active, announcing its intention to continue the campaign against British rule before the formation of the Real IRA. The CIRA continues to oppose the Belfast Agreement and, unlike the Provisional IRA (and the Real IRA in 1998), as of 2008 the CIRA has not announced a ceasefire or agreed to participate in weapons decommissioning - nor is there any evidence that it will. In the Eighteenth Independent Monitoring Commission's report both the RIRA and the CIRA were deemed a potential future threat, as well as the INLA. The CIRA was labeled "active, dangerous and committed and...capable of a greater level of violent and other crime." More than the other Republican and loyalist paramilitaries. Like the ONH and the RIRA, they too sought funds for expansion. They are also known to have worked with the INLA.
In 2005, several members of the Continuity IRA, who were serving prison sentences in Portlaoise Prison for paramilitary activity, left the organisation. Some transferred to the Irish National Liberation Army landing of the prison, but the majority of those who left are now independent and on E4 landing. The remaining Continuity IRA prisoners have moved to E3 landing, which houses Real IRA prisoners. Supporters of the Continuity IRA leadership claim that this resulted from an internal disagreement, which although brought to a conclusion, was followed by some people leaving the organisation anyway. Supporters of the disaffected members established the Concerned Group for Republican Prisoners in their support.
In February 2006, the Independent Monitoring Commission claimed in a report on paramilitary activity that two groups, styling themselves as the Saoirse na hÉireann and Óglaigh na hÉireann, had been formed after a split in the Continuity IRA.
The Continuity IRA has allegedly been involved in a number of bombing and shooting incidents. Targets of the CIRA have included British military and police service (Royal Ulster Constabulary, etc.), as well as Ulster loyalist paramilitaries. As of 2005, the CIRA is believed to have an established presence or capability of launching attacks on the island of Britain. A bomb defused in Dublin in December 2005 was believed to have been the work of the CIRA. In February 2006, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) blamed the CIRA for planting four bombs in Northern Ireland during the final quarter of 2005, as well as several hoax bomb warnings. The IMC also blames the CIRA for the killings of two former CIRA members in Belfast, who had established a rival organisation.