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Paramilitary Organizations: The Irish Republican Army (IRA)

Updated: Oct 19, 2023


The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was a revolutionary military organization with its roots in Ireland’s 20th century quest for national independence from Great Britain. The organization descended from a number of pr-existing organizations, most notably the Irish volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The Irish volunteers were a pre-existing military organization In Ireland that emerged during the First World War. During the First World War, some were skeptical of the British government’s promise to grant Irish independence if they aided in the war effort, and so formed a splinter group. This splinter group was largely controlled by the IRB which had been seeking to instigate rebellion against British rule since the mid-19th century.

Group Origins

The first organized attack against sovereign rule was led by the Irish Volunteers in 1916, and known as ‘The Easter Rising.’ Initially the event proved unpopular with the people because it resulted in civilian casualties, but public support changed after sixteen of its leaders were publicly executed.Sympathizers took pity on young men who had lost their lives and united an anger towards those who had took it. New recruits were enlisted into this militia and the name IRA was coined.

The IRA waged guerrilla war against the British Government and its forces in Ireland lasting from 1919-1921; commonly referred to as the Irish war of independence.

Following the Irish war of independence, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed and an Irish free state was formed; a compromise by the IRA, led by Michael Collins at the time. Specifically, in exchange for its independence, the IRA had agreed to allow Ireland's 6 northern counties (known as Northern Ireland) to remain under British rule. While Collins and others seen this compromise as a stepping stone to achieve freedom, others believed that Collins had ‘sold out ‘to the British government and abandoned their groups central aim. This controversy sparked a war between the majority of IRA members that were for the treaty, the Irish National army and the minority (led by de Valera) who opposed it.

Those opposed to the treaty refused to recognize its legitimacy of the governments of both Ireland and Northern Ireland and continued using the name Irish Republican army. This new splinter group continued to exist for another 40 years.During their existence attacks from the organization become less frequent,tensions rose, and in1969 the two groups evolved into the Official IRA (now opposed to an armed campaign) and the Provisional IRA (PIRA) who vowed to continue the use of violence for unification.

In the early 1960’s PIRA gained little public support with the violent methods used in their campaign, this included sniper attacks, assassinations and bombings within the province. But public support changed in 1972 when, during a public demonstration, British troops were involved in a controversial shooting at a public demonstration resulting in the deaths of fourteen unarmed civilians.This event was a PR disaster and caused public outrage, the IRA capitalized from this by launching a propaganda campaign. This helped recruit new members into its cause. During this time, the IRA gained financial sponsorship from Irish-Americans and had open trading routes for its arms coming in from Libya.

The Provisional IRA continued in their campaign of violence for the next 35 years before declaring a ceasefire on all violent operations in July 2005. Thereafter 2 splinter groups formed; The Continuity IRA (CIRA) in 1986 as result of the Provisional’s new found recognition of the authority of the Republic of Ireland and The Real IRA (RIRA) in 1997 made up of former PIRA members whom opposed the peace process that was taking

Aims and Ideology

The overall goal of the IRA was to unite the 32 counties in Ireland into a single Irish state independent from Great Britain. There were several divides in the IRA since its evolution, some abandoned the use of violence and sought to win unification politically. Although historically they all started out as an organization that believed a war of attrition was the most effective strategy.


The General Army Convention (GAC) is the supreme authority of the IRA selected by various units within the organization. The GAC selects a 12-member Army Executive whose key role is to advise the Army Council on all matters concerning the IRA. The Army council had overall command when the GAC is not in session and is responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization which include; directing policy and making major tactical decisions.

The planning and implementation of Army Council decisions was carried out by the General Headquarters (GHQ) Staff. These acted as the link between the council Northern and Southern commands. The Northern Command had5 brigades covering 11 counties in Northern Ireland and bordering counties, while the Southern Command covers the remaining 21–spread lightly over the Republic.2Each command had its own commanding officer (CO), director of operations and quartermaster. The operational arm consisted of cells known as Active Service Units (ASU's) each with five to eight members(and sometimes more). The Army council appoints a Chief of Staff, an adjutant general, and a General Headquarters (GHQ) made up of several other departments:

Quartermaster General (responsible for obtaining and concealing weapons)

• Director of Finance (including the financial health and sponsorship)

• Director of Engineering (perfecting bomb/timers/detonator skills etc.)

• Director of Training

• Director of Intelligence

• Director of Publicity

• Director of Operations


The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) list 4 key leaders that played a significant part in the organizations’ development: Sean MacStiofain, John Kelly, Thomas Murphy and Bobby Sands.

Sean MacStiofain was a key player during the 1969 formation of the Provisional IRA. MacStiofain was at the forefront of the split between the Official IRA and the Provisional’s and become the newly formed organizations’ first chief of staff. He mastered the art of propaganda techniques and was responsible for the IRA’s press conferences. In 1972, MacStiofain traveled to London for IRA delegation talks. Shortly after the talks MacStiofain ordered an increase of the IRA’s campaign, including the“Black Friday,” attack where22 car bombs detonated simultaneously across the province.

John Kelly was another key player in the IRA leadership, responsible for arming the Provisional IRA when weapons became a priority for the new strategy. Kelly was arrested his activities and served 15 years in prison. After his release and at the urgent request of the IRA’s political wing (Sinn Fein), Kelly became an assembly member in 1996, representing the Mid-Ulster constituency in the power sharing assembly after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Thomas Murphy was named as the IRA’s chief-of-staff since 1997, allegedly responsible for the fundraising activities for the group.Murphy was a notorious smuggler with an estimated net worth to be over 40mGPB. According to news reports, he made the bulk of his fortune smuggling livestock, cigarettes, and oil into Ireland. In addition, Murphy is suspected to have smuggled large amounts of weapons to the IRA over the past 20 years.

Bobby Sands become an inspirational figure within the Republican movement during his 14 years prison sentence for possession of a firearm. Sands joined the Provisional IRA in 1972, and 1981 held a hunger strike against in an effort to demand the prisoner’s status be changed to that of political prisoners. Sands was elected as member of British Parliament while still in prison, his election is believed to have spurned Sinn Fein's involvement in electoral politics. Shortly after his election, Bobby Sands died causing riots over the country. Sands refused to eat for 66 days. Over 100,000 people are believed to have lined his funeral route.

Sinn Fein was the IRA’s political wing and under the direction of a man named‘Gerry Adams’. Although in later years Sinn Fein distanced itself from the IRA, there have been clear links with name some of its leaders as former members of the terrorist group. For years Adams was one such leader, and although he publicly denies having ever been a volunteer in the IRA, these links remain questionable. He was still considered important enough to join an IRA delegation that met with the British government in London for talks in 1972, but one important question that can be considered is whether the IRA or Sinn Fein would have achieved what they have without the existence of the other.

Strategies The IRA's initial strategy was to use force by inflicting enough casualties on British forces that British government would be forced to withdraw from the region due to public opinion.

The IRA issued its military objectives in its training and induction manual called “The Green Book, 1977.” The manual described:

  1. A war of attrition -creating an unpopular war to force occupational forces to withdraw.

  2. A bombing campaign aimed at making the enemy's financial interest in our country unprofitable while at the same time curbing long-term financial investment in our country.

  3. To make the Six Counties as at present and for the past several years 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.

A list of some of the activities the IRA used in achieving their objectives included; bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, punishment beatings, extortion, smuggling, and robberies. A typical operation involved sniping at British patrols and engaging them into fire-fights within urban areas in order to sucker the Military into accidentally killing civilians.

An approximate 860 reported assassination incidents were carried by the organization. More notably one of these attacks included the death of Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle Lord Mountbatten by an explosive placed on his boat. In 1984 at the Brighton hotel, a bombing took place in an attempt to assassinate the then Prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Deploying explosive devices was the singular most popular method in which the IRA could deliver. It could cause major blows to the political, military and economic sector. On a larger scale, there were approx.2671 reported incidents in total. Using these extreme methods, the group was able to gain mass media coverage that would continually disrupt the daily lives of civilians and drain government resources.

The War of Attrition

The IRA forced the British economy (still recovering from 2 world wars) to spend more on its security budget, creating an expensive long war.

In 1996 a bomb targeting the city's infrastructure and economy was detonated in Manchester England. The bomb injured 212 people and caused damages estimated at £700m GBP (£1 billion as of 2011current exchange). In the same year, a bomb was detonated in the financial district of London’s Canary Wharf, causing an additional £85m.1998 saw a car bomb, initiated by the Real IRA in Omagh, killing 29 people and injuring 220. The attack was severe enough to provoke threats by the Irish government that paramilitary groups must declare a cease-fire.

Threats of violence drove away local and foreign investment. Civil rights protests highlighted Catholic minorities living in protestant areas as suffering disproportionately, including; employment, housing and education. This forced reforms in Government, and the Protestant Catholic communities to move forward in making peace. These negotiations were disrupted by the IRA.The IRA had made a huge impact during its campaign. In its early years they were partly successful as they helped establish Ireland as a Republic with its own government. But by using such brutal methods of terror and its murders on civilians, the IRA ruined its chances gaining potential supporters from the UK and therefore Northern Ireland still remains part of the United Kingdom with a majority of its inhabitants still wishing to remain British.

The Future of the IRA

It is difficult to predict the future of the IRA because they are highly changeable.The group has changed tactics, leadership and membership in the past century. Reports have suggested that the Provisional IRA have been honoring their agreement by ceasing all hostile operations and the decommissioning of their arms.But the group have a history of creating splinter cells each with a different ideology.

Since the 2005 peace agreement there has been a major decline in PIRA’s activity, but unfortunately this does not translate to the cessation of all violent activity. In 2009, several explosive devices were found –linked to splinter groups of the IRA.An additional attack includes the murder of two British soldiers that were collecting a pizza from outside their barracks in Derry.

These small, infrequent incidents from separatists of the organization are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. However, there have also been additional attempts on behalf of the British and Irish governments to move towards a more peaceful future.

Joint collaborations between the Irish police force (Gardai) and the Police service Northern Ireland (PSNI)in reducing criminal activity at the border crossing has increased. The continual collaboration between the two police forces will help strengthen the peace process and unify the police establishments in time. However, what will really determine the future of the country depends ultimately on the ordinary citizens. The Protestant and Catholic community will need to reconcile. Strong leadership is needed to help the people learn to accept one another/co-exist –and forgo harbored resentments caused during the struggles of a complicated history.

Council on foreign relationsProvisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)’ [online] [Accessed: 13.06.2011]

Frontline Online‘Uncovering the Irish Republican Army’ [online] [Accessed: 06.06.2011]O’Brian, 1999, ‘The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Fein’, 2nd Edition, Syracuse UniversityStart‘The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’[Online] [Accessed 15.06.2011]

Wikipedia Irish war of independence[Online] [Accessed: 05.06.2011]Wikipedia ‘The green book’ [Online] (Irish_Republican_Army_training_manual) [Accessed 05.06.2011]


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