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Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) (aka, PIRA, "the provos," Óglaigh na hÉireann) (UK separatists)

Author: Kathryn Gregory
Updated: March 16, 2010

What is the Irish Republican Army?

The provisional Irish Republican Army, or IRA, is an outgrowth of an older group known as the Irish Republican Army, which fought an insurgency that successfully challenged British rule in the whole of Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. The 1916-1921 warfare culminated in the creation of an independent Irish Free State in 1921. But in exchange for its independence, the old IRA's leadership agreed to allow Ireland's six northern counties to remain under British rule. Britain reconstituted these provinces as Ulster or Northern Ireland, and inside the IRA, significant elements rejected this partition and launched a civil war ultimately won by the pro-treaty Irish forces**. Ties between the Free State and Britain remained chilly into the 1970s. Meanwhile, the old IRA maintained a low level campaign of violence aimed at reuniting Ireland. By the 1960s, however, its activities had dwindled significantly.

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In the late 1960s, developments in Northern Ireland hastened the declining influence of the old guard. Reacting to discrimination against Catholics in the British-ruled province, civil rights marchers engaged in civil disobedience and were met by violent crackdowns from the Protestant-dominated police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Tensions rose and Britain deployed regular army troops to the province's streets, ostensibly to protect the Catholic minority. These tensions split the IRA, too, which in 1969, the IRA splintered into two groups, the Dublin-based "officials," who advocated a united socialist Ireland by peaceful means, and the Belfast-based "provisionals," who vowed to use violence as a catalyst for unification.

At first, the provisional IRA, or "provos" conducted sniper attacks, assassinations, and several small bombings in the province, and appeared to have little public support. Then, in January 1972, British troops opened fire on a Catholic rally in Londonderry, killing fourteen unarmed people. PIRA recruitment soared, and the official wing of the organization fell away into obscurity. Their violent comrades proceeded to launch a series of bombing campaigns around Northern Ireland and in Britain targeting both military targets and civilian populations. So-called "Loyalist" groups determined to retain British rule sprung up to challenge them, and in the crossfire, together with British military and Northern Irish police forces, some 3,600 people would die before a peace accord was signed in the late 1990s. Today, the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, which means "Ourselves Alone" in the Gaelic language, holds various positions within the provincial Northern Irish government. The Royal Ulster Constabulary has been disbanded, Loyalist groups largely have laid down their arms, and most British troops have left the province.

Is the IRA a terrorist group?

For years, beginning in the late 1960s, the IRA was considered one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world. In July 2002, on the thirtieth anniversary of the 1972 "Bloody Friday" bombings, the IRA startled its sympathizers and enemies alike by offering "sincere apologies and condolences" to the families of its civilian victims. The IRA has never been listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department,* but the British Home Office lists any group under the IRA name, as well as various splinter organizations, as proscribed terrorist groups. The IRA no longer describes itself as an armed force and officially ended its armed campaign to reunify Ireland in July 2005. An independent report stated that the IRA has decommissioned its weapons. This announcement was greeted with praise and hope by both the British and Irish governments. However, the IRA and its political wing still oppose what it calls an illegal foreign occupation of its country. Meanwhile, two IRA splinter groups, Real IRA and Continuity IRA, still practice terrorism and remain on the EU's and the State Department's terrorist group lists as recently as 2009.

What is the conflict in Northern Ireland about?

Following a 1916 uprising and years of guerrilla war led by the legendary Irish nationalist Michael Collins, the British government decided in 1920 to split up Ireland, which it had ruled for centuries. An independent state was created in the island's predominantly Catholic south, with its capital in Dublin; a smaller, northern district called Ulster, with a Protestant majority, remained part of the United Kingdom. The south descended into civil war over the partition, which cost Collins his life and led to the rise of Eamon DeValera as the president of the new Irish Free State. DeValera refused to vacate Ireland's claim to the North and steered a strict neutral course in world affairs during the decades in which he would remain in power in the Republic of Ireland, as the Free State became known.

In the North, the Catholic minority, many of them with "republican" or "nationalist" sympathies," found they faced discrimination for jobs, housing, and in their treatment before the law. On the other side, Protestant "unionists" held sway, controlled the patronage that doled out government jobs, and remained fiercely loyal to the British crown. Throughout much of the 20th century, Northern Ireland's shipyards, linen mills, and other manufacturing hubs played an important role in the economy of the British Empire. Catholic residents, however, largely were excluded from this prosperity, and when the conflict the Irish call "the Troubles" erupted in 1969, the Catholic unemployment rate in some parts of the province topped 30 percent.

What kind of attacks has the IRA carried out?

Since the late 1960s, the IRA has killed about 1,800 people, including about 650 civilians. The primary targets were British troops, police officers, prison guards, and judges—many of them unarmed or off-duty—as well as rival paramilitary militants, drug dealers, and informers in Ulster. Major IRA terrorist attacks include:

  • the July 1972 bombing spree known as Bloody Friday, in which downtown Belfast was rocked by twenty-two bombs in seventy-five minutes, leaving nine dead and 130 injured;
  • the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth II's uncle and the last Viceroy of India;
  • the 1984 bombing of a Brighton hotel where then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet were meeting, which wounded several British officials and killed four other Britons;
  • a 1993 car bombing in London's financial district, Canary Wharf, that killed one person and caused $1 billion of damage;
  • mortar attacks on the British prime minister's residence and London's Heathrow Airport in the early 1990s;
  • bombings of civilian targets, including pubs, shops, and subway stations, in Northern Ireland and Britain throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
  • involvement in organized criminal activities, such as extortion, bank robbery, smuggling, and counterfeiting.
Has the IRA participated in peace talks?

The IRA, through intermediaries and its political wing, Sinn Fein, opened talks with the government of British Prime Minister John Major in the mid-1990s. These talks led to the announcement of an IRA cease-fire in 1997 and, through several setbacks, to a peace pact. In April 1998, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell helped broker the Good Friday accord, a landmark agreement among most of the main political parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein, and the British and Irish governments. Its signatories renounced violence, established a new Northern Ireland legislative body, increased cross-border ties, and freed prisoners. In October 2001, the IRA began "decommissioning" its arsenal-in effect disarming, an action the unionists have long demanded as proof of the IRA's commitment to peace and to pursuing a purely political strategy.

The 1998 accord was jeopardized in October 2002 as Unionists accused several members of Sinn Fein of involvement in an IRA spy ring. The British government suspended Northern Ireland's power-sharing government after Unionists announced they would not remain in government with Sinn Fein until the IRA "put its weapons beyond use" and renounced violence. Reacting to accusations by the British and Irish governments that it was involved in a December 2004 Belfast bank robbery, the IRA withdrew its disarmament offer in February 2005, but reinstated it in July 2005. Two months later, an independent arms decommissioning body verified that the IRA had, in its view, put all its weapons beyond use. In July 2006, the British and Irish governments indicated that they believed that the IRA had ceased all centrally organized criminal activities, and subsequent reports indicate that the IRA is continuing to take steps to wind down, and even oppose, its paramilitary operations stemming from its splinter groups.

* Editor's Note: A previous version of this article erroneously listed the IRA as having been removed from the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2000.

** Editor's Note: A previous version of this article erroneously named the rejectionists as the victors of the Irish Civil War.

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