Irish Republican Army

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The Irish Republican Army

The Irish Republican Army, or the IRA, is used to refer to many different, historically linked organizations; the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA. The former were formed in 1969 and have been more active since then with a particularly high-profile from their military campaign. The Provisional IRA was formed as a reaction to perceived inactivity of the Official IRA, who were formed in 1919, but whose profile dropped since the end of the Irish Civil War.

The Provisional IRA, also known as the Irish Republican Army, PIRA, Provos, or IRA (Óglaigh na hÉireann in Irish Gaelic) is a republican terrorist organisation that fought against the British in Northern Ireland, claiming to represent the largely Catholic nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

The organisation is associated with the political party Sinn Féin (also known as Provisional Sinn Féin), although a direct association is officially denied. In 1981 an IRA prisoner serving a life sentence, Bobby Sands, was elected to the UK parliament while on Hunger Strike in the infamous Maze Prison. He died shortly after the election, but this was the beginning of a new strategy of Armalite and Ballot Box, combining politics with the armed struggle. The policy of violence was gradually undermined by increased faith in politics together with a number of peace initiatives and a loss of support for a violent program - the conciliatory handling of the situation first by John Major and later by Tony Blair is often held up as an example of an effective approach to a peace process.

Two small factions within the IRA broke away from the main organisation to protest its participation in the peace process: these are known as the Real IRA (RIRA), which carried out the Omagh bombing in 1998, the bloodiest single incident in the Troubles (29 people were killed), and the Continuity IRA (CIRA).



The IRA was first formed in 1919 from members of the Irish Volunteers, an armed group formed in 1913 to promote self-government in Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom, and in response to the formation of the armed Ulster Volunteers, which sought to force exclusion of Ulster from any Home Rule agreement. While the British parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act in 1914, providing limited powers of self-government to the Irish, its implementation was postponed by the outbreak of World War I. The majority of the approximately 100,000 Irish Volunteers accepted British promises that the act would go into force following the war, and many joined the British Army to fight. However, approximately 12,000 did not accept the delay. This group retained the name Irish Volunteers. They were largely controlled by the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood, or IRB, which had been seeking to instigate rebellion against British rule since the mid-19th century.

On April 24, 1916, the Easter Rising broke out when a significant portion of Volunteers seized Dublin's General Post Office (where their leader Padraig Pearse read a proclamation of Irish independence) and other points in Dublin. The limited nature of the rising is accounted for by splits in the leadership of the Volunteers and the issuing of orders countermanding the rising. The rebels managed to hold out for a week, but were defeated by British forces, who surrounded and isolated the rebel outposts and reduced them using artillery in many cases. The Rising had initially been unpopular among the Irish people, but this changed when the British executed 16 of its leaders following courts-martial in Dublin.

Irish War of Independence

In 1917, those who had participated in the Rising, as well as many who had been converted to their cause, organised the Irish Republican Army, dedicated to using force to attain independence. The Anglo-Irish War began with the killing of two Royal Irish Constabulary men in January 1919. The IRA was organised into "flying columns" of 20-30 men who attacked British bases and ambushed military and police forces, as well as smaller units carrying out killings of police, army and government personnel. In July 1921, the IRA and the British agreed to a truce, which was followed by the negotiations for what became the Anglo-Irish Treaty. By the treaty provisions, Ireland was to become a dominion of the United Kingdom, and the British were to retain possession of several ports on the Irish coastline. Additionally, members of the Irish Parliament (or Dáil Eireann) were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the British Crown. The treaty also led to the partition of the island, as six northern counties (Armagh, Antrim, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Down, Derry) opted to remain part of the UK and became the new state entity of Northern Ireland.

Irish Civil War

The IRA leadership as well as its rank and file were deeply divided by the treaty. Pro-treaty members believed that it was a stepping stone to the independence they had sought, while anti-treaty members felt the treaty was a betrayal of the ideals that had motivated them to fight. These divisions ultimately led to a split in the IRA and civil war. The pro-treaty faction was reorganised as the Irish National Army, while the Anti-Treaty group retained the IRA label. The schism ultimately led to a bloody civil war in which brutal atrocities were committed by both sides. Although The war ended in 1923 with the victory of the National Army, the divisions it caused continue to polarize Irish politics to this day.

Between the Wars

During the period between the Irish Civil War and World War II, the IRA was largely engaged in social issues, which they approached from an increasingly left-wing perspective. While a number of IRA men joined the Marxist International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, they also engaged in violent attacks against the authorities in both North and South. This approach was unpopular, largely due to the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. As time passed, IRA membership dwindled and many experienced veterans dropped out of the movement.

World War II

In 1938, however, the IRA began preparing plans to return to war with a bombing campaign in England. The IRA also sought the assistance of Nazi Germany, but in the end the Abwehr provided little assistance.[1] The IRA campaign had little effect, largely due to repressive measures taken by the British and Irish governments.

At the time of the Second World War, the Irish Free State was under the governance of Eamon de Valera and the Fianna Fail Party. Faced with an upsurge of terrorist violence, de Valera began interning IRA members without trial in the Curragh Camp in County Kildare. IRA men accused of capital crimes were tried by military tribunals and in some cases received the death penalty.[2]

The most famous such incident of this era involved IRA Chief of Staff Charles Kerins, who was hanged at Dublin's Mountjoy Prison on December 1, 1944. He had been convicted by court-martial of the machine gun slaying of a Detective Sergeant Denis O'Brien of the Garda Siochana. Kerins is revered as a martyr by many militant Irish nationalists to this day.

Border Campaign

In the early 1950s the IRA began planning for a new campaign, which was intended to reunite Northern Ireland with the remainder of the island. The Border Campaign began in 1956 and lasted until 1962. IRA groups attacked military installations and attempted to disrupt the workings of the Northern Ireland state by damaging its infrastructure. The governments once again responded by introducing internment, which severely inhibited IRA operations. Ultimately the Border Campaign ended with an IRA admission that it did not have sufficient popular support to maintain its activities.

The Troubles

During the early 1960s, the IRA again came under socialist and Marxist influences. This led to a lack of emphasis on military aspects of the organisation. When violent rioting broke out in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, in 1969, the IRA was ill-prepared to assist the Catholic/Nationalist community, to the extent that mocking jokes held that the abbreviation 'IRA' stood for "I Ran Away". The lack of focus on defence led to divisions within the IRA between those who favoured a movement focused on class issues and those who were motivated to defend their community by armed force, and by extension, use armed struggle to bring about a united Ireland. The organisation split along these lines in 1969, and the group focused on defence and armed struggle against the British became known as the Provisional IRA (PIRA). The remaining group was referred to as the Official IRA (OIRA).

OIRA engaged in some military activity during the early years of the Troubles before calling a ceasefire in 1972. They have since transformed into a political party, currently known as The Workers’ Party, contesting elections largely in the Republic of Ireland. PIRA, on the other hand, launched a 30-year campaign of violence against British control of Northern Ireland. PIRA violence was responsible for approximately 1,800 of the 3,000 deaths during the Troubles. The PIRA campaign came to an end with a ceasefire in 1997 as a result of the Irish Peace Process, which culminated in the Belfast Agreement, sometimes known as the Good Friday Agreement, in 1998. In 2005, the IRA officially announced an end to its campaign and decommissioned much of its arms under international supervision.

The PIRA's terror campaign was largely funded from overseas. Two significant sources were the Libyan government and sympathisers in the United States.[3][4]

Noraid is an American fund-raising organisation claiming to support the peaceful campaign for a united Ireland. Set up at the beginning of the Troubles, it was often accused by the British, Irish and US governments of being a front for the supply of military hardware to the PIRA. Coupled with vocal support for Irish republicanism by certain US elected representatives and the refusal to extradite IRA suspects by members of the US judiciary, this caused many in the UK to suspect that Americans were anti-British and caused resentment of United States policy by many Britons.

IRA volunteers have since been caught helping FARC terrorists in Colombia.[5]


  1. Tim Pat Coogan, "The IRA: A History," Chapter 9, "The IRA and the Nazis," pages 151-162.
  2. Tim Pat Coogan, "The IRA: A History," Chapter 8, "The Years of the Curragh," pages 143-150.

Further reading

  • Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA: A History, Roberts Rhinehart Publishers, 1994.
  • T. Ryle Dwyer, The Squad and the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins, Mercier Press, 2006.
  • James Gleeson, Bloody Sunday: How Michael Collins' Agents Assassinated Britain's Secret Service in Dublin on November 21, 1920, London, 1962.
  • Tom Mahon & James J. Gillogly, Decoding the IRA, Mercier Press, 2008.